Mama's Ghost

By J. Max Turner
Directed by Steve Thornburg
Trilogy Theater
341 W. 44th St. (489-1632)
Non-union production (closes March 28)
Review by David Mackler

Putting a ghost on stage is a useful dramatic device, and it can be used to dramatic effect (Hamlet) as well as comic (Blithe Spirit). There can be Freudian implications, or simply the slapstick of a doubletake when someone sees what couldn't possibly be there.
In Mama's Ghost, playwright J. Max Turner tries to incorporate a little of both. David (Philip Alexander) and Sam (Kevin Horne) are back from the funeral of David's mother, who they have lived with for 15 years. David and Sam's relationship was never discussed during that time, and Sam, now free from his disapproving mother-in-law, is eager to make some changes around the fusty house. David is unwilling, and Mama (Carolyn Seiff), whose ghost appears in an obvious but very effective flourish, is even more unwilling.
This, of course, leads to complications, especially since Mama is a quarrelsome, disapproving, if ever-so-genteel southern lady. And besides, she is only visible to Sam, whom she has never acknowledged as her son's lover. But Mama brings some weird news - it seems she and Sam have to perform a miracle in order for Mama to get into heaven. (Just what the miracle is isn't hard to guess, but they don't figure it out for a while.) Meanwhile, Sabrina (Alexandra Cremer), a hippie friend of David and Sam's, gets them a decorator, the mega-flamboyant Antonio La Elegante (Aubrey James), who has an accent that incorporates elements from most known languages, and who has a propensity for expressing his decorating inspirations in as little clothing as possible.
Mama and Sam continue sniping at each other, with Mama getting fairly mean with her put-downs - "fruit" puns, "fairy" remarks - and Sam running the gamut of ways of trying to deal with her, from arguing to ignoring. Finally, David and Sam quarrel (with the encouragement of Mama) and David has a heart attack.
With this for Act I, there isn't much of anywhere unexpected for the play to go in Act II. Mama and Sam argue, reason, attack, defend, cajole and plead with each other, and finally, Mama reveals that her antagonistic behavior was mostly from feeling left out, and that she blames herself for her son being gay. Perhaps this is a revelation to her, but the audience is way ahead of the play by this point. Yet, just after this revelation, Turner has written a touching scene between mother and son. That, of course, is the miracle, Mama's acceptance of her son, and his lover.
Mama's Ghost seems to be caught in a time warp. It is set in the present, but it doesn't seem very current. The play has been performed in regional theaters, and it certainly presents a positive message about families and love. But the mechanics of the plot creak, and stymie the best efforts of the cast to make the play vital. Alexander and Horne have a touching sweetness as the lovers, and a realness that is very appealing. Cremer makes the most of the eccentric Sabrina, and James's antics nearly turn the play, most amusingly, into a strip show. Seiff has a harder time of it because Mama is so unpleasant (in spite of the thrill she seems to get out of baiting her son's lover), but she is the linchpin of the play, and her transformation to a heaven-ascending angel is satisfying, because she seems to glory in the change (and because the guys will finally be alone together). In line with the nature of the play, Steve Thornburg has kept the direction simple. He has also included a bonus - if you stay in the theater for intermission, you'll see Sabrina and Antonio redecorate Mama's house (set design by Nadine Charisen). The change isn't much (it mostly results in a profusion of pink with blue polka dots) but their interplay is refreshing and amusing.
Dramatically, Mama's Ghost is not very compelling, but it finally does reveal that it has a heart as big as anything, or at least as pink as the new furnishings in Mama's, now David and Sam's, house. Even the play's obviousness is, in the end, touching.
Box Score

Writing: 1
Directing: 1
Acting: 1
Set: 1
Costumes: 1
Lighting/Sound: 1

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Copyright 1998 David Mackler