When we first decided to perform Ragtime at Duke, I spent a lot of time reading the reviews and criticisms of the professional Broadway performances that preceded us. They were never entirely good or entirely bad, but usually reflected the complex nature of the show itself. They found it problematic. When I was later cast as the role of Mother, I spent an equal amount of time trolling the Internet for reviews of other actress’s performances. Again, it was impossible to find one that was all good or all bad. More interestingly than the reviews of the actresses, however, were people’s responses to the character herself. They were partially good and partially bad, reflecting her complicated nature just how they had done for the show itself.
The adjective that terrified me the most was “wooden,” as someone from the New York Times described Marin Mazzie’s portrayal. I did not want to fall into this trap. However, there is not much dialogue to work with in this play. Even as one of the characters with the steadiest presence on stage, I wasn’t sure I would be able to bring Mother to life in her limited moments on stage, separated by long stretches of story concerning other characters. This is one of the greatest challenges of Ragtime, and why it is not really like any other show I have ever seen or performed.
I followed Jeff’s advice to trace Mother throughout the entire story, and to figure out what was happening to her while the other characters were on stage telling their parts. Then I decided not only to figure out what was happening to her, but to figure out what she was doing.
One of the reasons Mother is such a wonderful character to play is because her life does not revolve around the things that happen to her but instead around the things she does. As the play opens, she is a passive character. She responds to the cues she is given by society and remains comfortably within their straits. The moment this all changes is the moment when she decided to react but rather DO something that others will react to.
After finding an abandoned infant in her backyard, Mother calls for help. Several other characters come onstage, including her housemaid, her younger brother, a policeman… And she asks them what is going to happen next. She asks them what will happen to Sarah, the baby’s mother. She asks them what will happen to the baby itself. They answer her confidently, telling her where Sarah and her baby will go and what will happen to them. Instead of taking this in and accepting it, Mother decides to change all that. She decided to take them into her home and into her care, defying society’s every expectation.
This is when Mother truly starts to “grow.” One of the most interesting conversations I had with Jeff, however, was about the nature of Mother’s growth and how it was not necessarily linear in the way we would expect. We were talking about “Back to Before” the ballad that Mother sings at the end of the show, and how at that point she as is liberated as ever. She has let her hair down, she is being honest, and she is forthcoming with every thought and emotion. These are not usually the measures of “adulthood.” In fact, I came to realize that Mother may have seemed older at the start of the play than at its finish. She is a young woman, but at the start of the show she was effectively playing house. Her marriage felt largely artificial, empty of all real feeling, but she went through the motions and fulfilled the role. At the end of the play, she has taken off her shoes on a beach and waded out into the water, discovering herself and recapturing herself only after letting herself go.
The most difficult part of playing Mother, for me, was playing her love story with Tateh. This is because it is mostly not included in the script at all, only mentioned in the end with a brief summary of a line. If ever an epic romance were given short shrift, it was this one. I also didn’t understand how this character, who had grown so self-sufficient, decided to move from one husband to the next. Did Mother need to marry again? Reading through the script over and over I was left unconvinced. Bringing the scenes to life, however, changed all of that. The small flirtations written into each line-exchange with Tateh truly came to life, for me, no matter how long they took. Many of the people I spoke to after the show mentioned how sweet and simple those scenes were, and I completely understood. They were never overwrought, just as real as could be. The love story, while never necessary, was very true.
I think the character of Mother is one that will stay will me. Hearing Younger Brother say at the end of the show: “You can tell her that I have always loved her and admired her” made me cry each and every single night. Because I have always loved her and admired her as well.