Reviewed by Deborah Klugman
Night. A car halts at the side of a dirt road. A harsh female voice orders a youngster, played by writer/performer Rachel Parker, to get out [!] — then drives off, leaving the terrified child behind. A few minutes later, the vehicle returns, and the same strident voice orders the girl to get back in. Abjectly grateful, she complies.
Parker’s recollection of this night plays at the top of The Wolfe & The Bird, an autobiographical play that reflects back on her rough, rocky journey to adulthood at the hands of her abusive mother, Gladys. The title derives from the names of two of the roads where young Rachel was frequently dropped off and (temporarily) abandoned on the raging whim of her pathologically angry and bitter parent.
Episodes like this repeat often during Parker’s childhood and adolescence in blue-collar Flint, Michigan. That’s because Gladys, a woman whose dreams of being a model were shattered by marriage and kids, finds infinite ways to make those around her miserable. She appears to have a special bone to pick with Rachel, belittling her privately on numerous occasions while smiling socially at the company around them. She flies into rages if she loses a card game to her daughters or is interrupted in her rants. She dumps Rachel’s clothes on the floor and threatens to send both her and her sister to an institution for wayward girls. “It just isn’t a day unless Gladys has one good angry,” says her husband Tommy (voiceover by James Heaney), a hard-working amiable father who nonetheless hasn’t the time (he works 2 jobs) or the grit to protect his children from his wife.
Meanwhile, as Rachel grows up, she discovers talents in herself as a dancer and performer and gains the support of appreciative teachers who help her withstand her mother’s assaults.
Listening to Parker’s account can be trepidatious, as Silvie Zamora’s grating cacophonous “Gladys” voiceover effectively conjures the fear and anxiety Rachel grew up with. But despite its dark elements, The Wolfe & The Bird emerges an uplifting, entertaining show. Parker is warm and likable and easy to root for. Under Alina Phelan’s direction, the narrative comes simply but attractively packaged — a couple of set pieces to convey the interior of Rachel’s bedroom, distinctive lighting by Matt Richter, and a striking story-enhancing sound design by Stephen Epstein. A couple of wrinkles in pacing in this premiere performance are sure to be ironed out as the run continues.
Finally, as in all tales of oppression, you rejoice with the oppressed when she finally breaks free.
The Matrix Theatre, 7657 Melrose Avenue, West Hollywood; Sat.-Sun. 8 p.m. except Oct. 9 at 2 p.m.; through October 10. Tickets at http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/5219775
**Proof of vaccination required for entry. Masked mandated during the performance.
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