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The Mai

Mothers and daughters do damage in a gripping play

Natalia Chavez Leimkuhler, Amelia Adams, and April Rejman fall apart.
Amelia Adams and Jonathon Sachsman can't connect.

By By Hsia-Ting Chang | Posted 4/28/2010

The Mai

By Marina Carr

Through May 1 at the Strand Theater

Watching The Mai is like watching a car crash—even though some part of you recoils in horror at the carnage, you can’t look away—but in the best possible sense. The two-hour play holds you transfixed, breathless at the edge of your chair as playwright Marina Carr’s vision explodes in front of your eyes. The Mai explores the desperation and heartache of four generations of women who, despite their mistakes, continue to love to the point of destruction.

The play opens to the strains of Celtic folk music, bagpipe, and penny whistle, calling to mind an Irish countryside. The soft increase in light draws attention to a cello settled into the far corner of the stage. Brenda Badger, who plays the narrator, Millie, clatters onto the platform, followed closely by Jonathan Sachsman, as the sole male character, Robert. He seats himself on a block that doubles for a chair, draws the cello between his legs, and begins to play a mournful melody.

The Mai is the name of a woman, who ghosts onto the stage draped in white and blue. Amelia Adams, who plays the lead, freezes, and there's a halo of light about her red hair. Each moment seems like a cinematic snapshot: Robert bent over the neck of the cello, Millie half-draped in shadow, and the Mai turned away from them both. At the low stirring of strings, the Mai drops a pile of books and turns toward Robert. Sexual tension crackles between them as he draws the bow of his cello across the exposed neck of the Mai’s gown. Millie, their daughter, watches in silence.

The audience is held captive by the self-destructive relationship between the Mai and her wayward husband. Carr weaves together a tale about mothers and daughters and questions the responsibilities of a parent to a child. Her characters almost always act out of self-interest. Though cruel, the children learn the heart-wrenching reality of love early, carrying the scars of abandonment and disappointed hopes. The genius of the play comes from the interconnecting themes of loss; all the characters are broken somehow.

Each member of the “Connemara Clique,” made up of three generations of Connemara women, handles her disillusionment differently. Grandma Fraochlán, played by Baltimore veteran Natalia Chavez Leimkuhler, drowns her sorrow in mulberry wine and opium smoke. She talks to her dead husband, rants at the fictional Sultan of Spain, and laments the untimely death of her daughter, Ellen. With the option of flight-or-fight, The Mai’s sister, Beck (April Rejman), chooses flight. She runs from her troubles, leaving an apathetic husband and a string of sexual encounters behind her. Jessica Baker plays the other sister, Connie, whose strictly regimented life leaves her yearning for a passionate love affair. The Mai’s aunts, Julie (Nancy Linden) and Agnes (Lucie Poirer), meddle in their relatives’ affairs, hiding deep traumas of their own.

The play dissects marriage. The Mai, always a dreamer, can only watch as her marriage disintegrates in front of her, powerless to stop it. She does what she can to repair it, but Robert continuously sidesteps her attempts, going as far as to throw his wife against a wall. Carr depicts the awfulness of what two people can do to each other, how they can hurt each other and yet still claim to be in love.

Badger’s role as both teenaged and adult Millie took a bit of getting used to—the switch signaled only by a quick change in hairstyles and the appearance of glasses—but this initially awkward dual role didn't dull the play's emotional impact. Adams' portrayal of the Mai, which starts off a little uncertain, blossoms in the second act. She flies about in a rage, spitting and screaming like an alley cat, unmindful of the psychological damage she does to her daughter later in life. The language of The Mai moves between the Irish brogue of Grandma Fraochlán and the elevated, beautiful language of Millie’s narration. Themes introduced at the beginning of the play not only return, but help shape the plot and Carr leaves no loose ends, except for the ones she wants to stick with you after you leave the theater .

The Mai does more than merely imitate life; it studies all the things that make life real. These women repeat the same mistakes over and over again, in hopes of a different outcome each time. Each disappointment brings them lower, until they crack The cycle repeats with each mother-daughter pair. Not just a tale of marriage-gone-wrong, The Mai offers a psychological study on the damage parents can wreak on their children, as well as the endurance of love.

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