Female Trouble

While theater has a long history of investigating father-son relationships (from Shakespeare's King Henry and Prince Hal to Arthur Miller's Willy and Biff Loman), stories of mothers and daughters have often been relegated to supporting, or even absent, plot lines. The reason why theater has embraced plays about male family members almost exclusively probably has something to do with the fact that playwrights, especially modern American playwrights (who tend to be white men), write about their families with that Greek sensibility of filial obligation -- that endless tension and expectation that colors the relationships between men and their fathers. With its plucky independence, the Ensemble Theatre has neatly overturned that status quo both by incorporating plays about and by women into its seasons. A case in point is the Ensemble's current production of Cheryl West's Jar the Floor, a frank play about strong and troubled females.

Widely produced in everything from small regional spaces to major venues since its premiere in 1991, Jar the Floor is itself surprisingly Greek: It is West's response to that canon with a cast of tough, intelligent women who have no small amount of their own tensions and expectations for one another and for themselves. Directed by Ntozake Shange, who premiered West's Before It Hits Home at the Ensemble last season, Jar the Floor is full of strife and violence, both real and symbolic. And thanks to dialogue that clips right along and a cast of solid actresses, it turns out to be a pretty good ride.

Four generations of women -- the 90-year-old Ma' Dear, her daughter Lola, her granddaughter May Dee and her great-granddaughter Vennie -- have gathered in May Dee's middle-class suburban living room for Ma' Dear's 90th birthday. It's immediately clear that this won't be any simple celebration; group manicures and warm exchanges of cookie recipes aren't on the agenda. Instead, deep wounds begin to surface through cutting dialogue. The tension between each mother and daughter rises to a banshee's wail -- every character on-stage screams, cries and yelps for understanding and in anger. Shange ably directs her cast through the play's raw emotional betrayals -- Ma' Dear wishing she would have killed Lola in her crib, May Dee revealing a secret of sexual abuse to both injure Lola and redeem herself -- as the story gathers force. Jar the Floor isn't a play about action; it's a play about the journey each character makes toward a rebirth that ends in trauma along with quiet joy.

Ma' Dear, the beginning of the line for this particular family, has lapsed into senility, and her madness provides the play with both comedy and clairvoyance. Yolande Sigers gives Ma' Dear the breadth the character deserves, especially when describing the starting point for the play's back-story: the moment in which she discovered her husband's erotic love for their daughter. The moment, with Sigers bathed in light at center stage, is chilling. It is a worst fear realized, one that goes on to infect each subsequent generation of women. Though they never appear on-stage -- like the Greek gods, they remain maddeningly out of reach -- men prove to be a major source of the women's troubles. Until, that is, the play winds around to Vennie, whose story is complicated by factors that have nothing to do with men. Raised by a mother who sacrificed to provide for her, Vennie is spoiled and a bit petulant -- traits believably rendered in Tamiyka White's performance.

This production of Jar the Floor often has the feel of several monologues piled into one another; it's a collision of strength and stubbornness that turns out to be a plus. As each woman clamors to regain what is rightfully hers, she shuts out communication and, occasionally, the opportunity for her kin to regain what is rightfully theirs. While Lola -- played with a wonderful cockiness by Jean Donatto -- has made it her life's work to be attractive, her daughter May Dee became a career-oriented college professor. To May Dee's dismay, her own daughter, Vennie, lacks scholastic ambition; she would rather pursue a career as a singer. West always provides an outsider to offer the audience a different lens through which to view the action, and in Jar the Floor we have Raisa, Vennie's friend from college. Played by Michea Carter, Raisa offers dead-on analyses and tries to nurse Ma' Dear through her bouts of sorrow, while at the same time charming her way through to a wary Lola and May Dee.

This isn't always an easy production to sit through -- the volume level drops only briefly, and the women's fighting is real enough to make the audience feel like they're eavesdropping on especially strident neighbors. But it offers an honest look at the threads that pull through women's relationships with other women, betrayal surfacing as the resonant theme. What's perhaps most interesting about Jar the Floor is not what West includes, but her craft in leaving things out -- men, of course, and some loose ends of mother-daughter relations that, at the play's conclusion, are left tantalizingly unanswered.

Jar the Floor plays through March 16 at the Ensemble Theatre, 3414 La Branch (at Holman), 520-0055.

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Megan Halverson