As the mother of sons, I've always been curious about the mother-daughter relationship. Which is exactly why I jumped at the chance to chat with playwright Kathleen Tolan, whose play Memory House centers around the banter between a mother and daughter hours before the dreaded college essay is due.
Memory House runs through Feb. 10 at Main Street Theater (MST), and features MST artistic director Rebecca Greene Udden as Maggie, the mother, and Joanna Hubbard as Katia, the daughter. The drama plays out while Maggie bakes a blueberry pie and Katia tries to get to the bottom of her own identity as an adopted Russian child.
Insults, hugs and blueberries get bandied about as these two navigate the equally delicate and treacherous territory of mother-daughter politics. Now, Tolan brings us into her word kitchen.
Culturemap: I was drawn to your play because of the mother-daughter scenario, which can be a volatile place. What drew you to this topic?
Kathleen Tolan: For a story or event to spark my imagination, it has to be sufficiently complex, the relationships potentially rich and contradictory. With Memory House, I had been working a freelance job interviewing people for a newsletter, and a woman told me about how she adopted a daughter from Eastern Europe.
"I do feel that listening is a crucial component of writing. I love the music of language."
As I listened to her story, I was struck by how fascinating and moving it was, and complicated. She saved this girl from a terrible life, and she wanted this girl to save her from a life that was somehow empty. It was so compelling to me, this intersection of two people. And the story was both small and intimate, and it asked questions about the world, who we are in the world, and about the act of helping and saving and taking and having.
CM: Can you talk about the research process?
KT: I interviewed a number of parents who had adopted children from Russia, and I met with adoption agents and a pediatrician who specialized in international adoptions, a sociologist who worked in Eastern Europe and Russia and another sociologist who was an expert on adoption. I read books about child development and books that argued different positions about international adoption issues.
I read anthropologies and political histories of Russia and a book about conditions in Russian orphanages.
CM: Having a child leave home is a milestone. I've done it twice. Have you had to deal with the trials of a departing child, and does baking a pie help with the sorrow?
KT: I happened to have baked a few pies the winter I started to write it, in part to deal with the sadness that my oldest daughter was going to be going to college the following year and in part so I didn’t go crazy with the fact that getting the college applications into the mail seemed to make the whole household insane with panic. So I thought, well, what if I write this play when all the fears and issues that have been lying dormant between the mother and adopted daughter all these years come to the surface.
What if this anticipated event, the daughter leaving home, causes both women to have to confront fears and anger and sadness that they have been suppressing?
"The teenager has often compelled me as a character. Everything can be so intense."
And how might this play also be about the fear to take action, to step into the fray, to leave home, to step out the door?
CM: From the get go, I knew that these two were going to get through this, but it won't be easy. Is it me, or did you plant that early on to put us at ease before you break our hearts?
KT: It was important to me that they love and need each other, and that should be in the subtext. Katia expresses her angst, she lashes out, criticizes and challenges but she’s testing — testing her mother, testing herself, testing the waters and she contemplates the scary past and the questionable future, both of which she needs to be able to brave and step out into the world.
CM: The dialogue has such energy. Perhaps it's how moms and daughters speak. I have sons. They don't talk. Katia and Maggie have a complex, witty and at times maddening way of communicating. It feels very real. How does rhythm factor into your process?
KT: I do feel that listening is a crucial component of writing. I love the music of language. And I have daughters! Though we’ve never said these things to each other, the subtext was there.
CM: Often what we don't remember can be most potent. As Katia struggles with her missing sense of identity over the arc of the play, we see her making something out of shreds of evidence. There is so much about parenting that requires the impossible, and how our children form their identity tops the list. What made you want to illuminate this elusive part of parenting?
KT: The teenager has often compelled me as a character. Everything can be so intense. And there can be a combined rawness, daring, moral clarity, naiveté and passion that is beautiful and dramatic.
CM: Middle age for women is no walk in the park. Maggie used to be a dancer, have a dance company, be a "contender." As a former dancer and artistic director of a dance company myself, it's hard for me not to identify with her. She has her own trauma, yet I have high hopes for her too at the end. Talk about Maggie. She's so patient and tolerant, really a saint of a mom.
KT: I think Maggie is facing her own depression and her own anticipation of loneliness and loss when Katia leaves. And her fear and depression is a weight on Katia. And Maggie knows she has to find a way to get Katia to leave home, to dare to walk out the door. Maggie needs to truly release Katia for Katia to go.
CM: Let's talk pies. Maggie tells us "baking things acts as an anchor to keep the brain strands in place."
KT: It’s really fun when the audience smells the pie baking!
CM: What are you working on now?
KT: I have a new play called The Cottage, about a family faced with having to sell their cabin and all the stuff that comes up with that. And I have a play called Chicago Boys, set in the 1970s in Chicago and Chile around the time of the coup, about a young economist who falls in love with a young Chilean woman and the complexity and heartbreak they go through.