Family feud

Female actors make ‘Independence’ a powerful season debut

Daughters Jo (Hattie Miller), Kess (Theresa Carson) and Sherry (Alyce Neubert) rush to their mother’s aid (Maureen May) after a kitchen “accident” left her bloodied in a scene from Lee Blessing’s “Independence” at the Durango Arts Center. Enlarge photo

Jerry McBride/Durango Herald

Daughters Jo (Hattie Miller), Kess (Theresa Carson) and Sherry (Alyce Neubert) rush to their mother’s aid (Maureen May) after a kitchen “accident” left her bloodied in a scene from Lee Blessing’s “Independence” at the Durango Arts Center.

For the inaugural theater season at Durango Arts Center, Theresa Carson is leading by example.

The center’s new theatrical director heads up the first play of the season, Lee Blessing’s family drama “Independence,” – but Carson is in the spotlight, not behind it.

Carson plays the eldest sister, Kess, in a play about three sisters and their relationship with each other and their mother, a scene-stealing role nailed by Maureen May in this production. May’s overbearing and almost creepy portrayal of Evelyn is something between Joan Crawford and what I have to believe would have been Mrs. Bates had we ever gotten the chance to meet her. There’s even a bit of Miss Havisham in there. A real charmer – makes me miss my own dearly departed mom just a bit less, actually.

“You show me one mother who hasn’t hit a child!” Evelyn screams defensively to explain why her daughter Jo wears a neck brace in the opening scene.

Mom has never left the house in which she was born and raised like her mother before her, save for a brief marriage and a stint in a mental-health facility. Kess has been gone for four years, during which time she finally told Mom that she is gay. Middle sister Jo (Hattie Miller) and youngest Sherry (Alyce Neubert) still live with Mom. Sherry is rebellious and promiscuous – a lost cause as far as Mom’s concerned. But Jo, for now anyway, is Mom’s last hands-on chance to ruin one of her daughter’s lives and she does all she can to sabotage any budding happiness in her middle daughter’s life, including a marriage proposal, and keep her at home forever.

The program notes include a quote from Blessing that I found remarkably accurate: “Mostly I’m trying to get the audience to go through an experience, emotionally. It’s a subtle emotional thing that happens not altogether in the conscious mind when you watch a good drama. You realize you’re going through something that has become important to you emotionally.”

“Independence” has an almost subliminal effect. The sisters and their mother engage in nonstop petty arguments that convey much deeper unspoken emotions and conflicts. The fragmented family doesn’t even appear together on stage until the end of Act I when Mom emerges from the kitchen bloodied by an “accident” with some broken dishes.

This is a play for mature audiences; not in age and not because of any questionable themes (outside of lots of pregnancy talk and a vulgar swear word or two from the acerbic Sherry), but rather in one’s ability to fully appreciate the spoken and unspoken themes.

Not to be overlooked is the professional polish put on through the collaboration between the arts center and Merely Players, the local theatrical company headed by Mona Wood-Patterson and Charles Ford. Ford’s sets are the best that have graced the DAC stage. He created the downstairs of a Midwestern family home (the play is set in Independence, Iowa) by assembling a series of 2- and-4-foot panels and connecting them the width of the stage. And a 4-foot extension to the apron puts the living room much closer to the audience. It’s a subtle difference but effective.

Wood-Patterson directs the play, and with such a small and professional cast, there are very few loose ends (and I only attended a dress rehearsal). In addition to veterans May and Carson, Neubert holds a degree from Fort Lewis College in theater performance and directing. Miller is a lifelong thespian who graduated from Los Angeles County High School for the Arts in California.

The cast and crew will be available for a talk-back with the audience 10 minutes after the conclusion of the play.

ted@durangoherald.com

Jo (Hattie Miller), Kess (Theresa Carson) and a disinterested Sherry (Alyce Neubert) debate their futures in a scene from “Independence” at Durango Arts Center. Charles Ford of Merely Players designed and built the sets for the play. Enlarge photo

Jerry McBride/Durango Herald

Jo (Hattie Miller), Kess (Theresa Carson) and a disinterested Sherry (Alyce Neubert) debate their futures in a scene from “Independence” at Durango Arts Center. Charles Ford of Merely Players designed and built the sets for the play.

Hattie Miller stars as middle daughter Jo in Lee Blessing’s “Independence.” Enlarge photo

Jerry McBride/Durango Herald

Hattie Miller stars as middle daughter Jo in Lee Blessing’s “Independence.”