Sparked by a dying man’s denial of paternity, a daughter forces her aging, tyrannical mother to give up long held family secrets in this Irish family drama by Thomas Kilroy, directed by Brian Murray.
Reviewed by Ilena George
Crippled by arthritis, confined to her chair, famed sculptor Nell Jeffrey (Roberta Max) still runs and ruins the life of her younger daughter, Judith (Julia Gibson). As the Museum of Modern Art in Kilmainhaim dismantles her studio piece by piece to open a permanent exhibit of Nell’s work, Judith tends to the man her mother claimed was her father; his dying words bring the familial ugliness she had swept under the mental rug out into the open. In addition to the question of paternity, which, when grilled about it, Nell responds, “My life was very crowded in those days,” Judith wants to get to the bottom of why her disturbed older sister, Grace (Molly Ward) left thirty years ago and was never heard from again.
The Jeffery household as it was, which we catch glimpses of through memories and flashbacks, was a forcibly eccentric one. No men, frequent excursions throughout the world prompted by a whim, and the expectation that normal and ordinary lives are abhorrent. Throughout the play, Roberta Max provides an electrifying stage presence; it’s easy to see how a life under Nell Jeffrey’s roof could be both thrilling and terrifying.
Oscillating between lucidity and confusion, the past and the present, bully and victim, success and failure, Max’s Nell vividly embodies a woman once at the top of her craft, now battling her body’s inevitable decline. For Nell, Gracie is the ghostly elephant in the room; her failed first attempt at parenting. This is addressed somewhat heavy handedly through the presence of “Egg Woman,” Nell’s failed sculpture that has a prominent place in her studio and toward which Grace expresses a particular affinity.
Julia Gibson gives a stately dignity to Judith, but as the straight-laced foil to Nell’s eccentricity and brilliance, her character cannot hope to compete with her mother’s magnetism. Nell’s acuity, now evident through pithy one-liners on the nature of life, art and love and her tendency to call her acquaintances by oxymoronic epithets (“Splendid bollocks,” “the adorable shit”) make the slow deterioration of her mind a tragedy.
Like its protagonist, the play meanders in its second half, losing its urgent pace. The big reveal of what prompted Gracie’s sudden departure turns out to be as sordid as promised but not quite as shocking as expected and what seemed to me to be the main question of the play remains unanswered: Where is Gracie now?
Instead, Nell continues musing on modern art, in what she calls the “age of relentless artistic mediocrity” and tells stories about the men and artists she has known (including an odd but charming anecdote about Samuel Beckett and his love of German shoes). Irrelevant though her stories may be, and irreverent though she may be, I could have spent hours listening to the rest of her tales.
The Shape of Metal
By Thomas Kilroy
Directed by Brian Murray
59E59 Theaters (59 East 59th Street)
September 8-30, Tuesday-Saturday 8:15 pm, Sunday 3:15
Tickets: $21, Ticket Central (212) 279-4200
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