By Andy Bragen; Directed by Knud Adams
Produced by The Play Company
Off Off Broadway, Play
Runs through 10.27.19
4th Street Theatre, 83 East 4th Street
by Ran Xia on 10.14.19
Caroline Lagerfelt and Ari Fliakos in Notes On My Mother's Decline. Photo by Julieta Cervantes
BOTTOM LINE: For all of us who have had, or will have, to say goodbye to our mothers.
I miss my mother.
There’s never been a play more difficult to talk about. Half way through Andy Bragen‘s Notes On My Mother’s Decline, that’s all I could think about: I miss my mother. She’s still around, still drinking tea from those too-small-cups, still telling me to do the things I say I’d do but forget about within 5 minutes. We talk on WeChat, send each other cute GIFs and selfies, and tell each other about our success and failure stories when cooking. But I haven’t seen her in 3.5 years, and I fear every day about my own mother’s decline.
How do you say goodbye to your mother? It’s an impossible thing.
How do you tell your mother you love her? Seems unnecessary, but then again it’s an impossible thing.
This is a play that slowly soaks you up with its sincerity, bringing you to a raw and vulnerable place ever so imperceptibly. The playwright’s notes on his mother’s decline are rather notes on that long goodbye that many of us have had, or will inevitably have, to endure. “When did she get so old?” Andy asks as he watches his mother’s increasingly frail body hobbles across the room, and there’s a throbbing ache behind my eyes. I miss my mother.
The set is an abstracted replica of the author’s childhood apartment, painted white, which gives you a sense of this encounter between mother (Caroline Lagerfelt) and son (Ari Fliakos) as being a sort of “afterlife.” The mother’s entire existence centers around a giant bed, at least king-sized, one based on the son’s memories. They did everything on that bed: eating, playing games, entertaining guests…it’s a bed that has soaked up decades of life and it’s a kingdom where the mother is Queen. And where the son is a mere visitor for the most part. He observes, from a distance, and bring the audiences into a secret, sacred space.
“She smokes. She naps. She drinks coffee (from a mason jar). She talks on the phone.”
“She smokes.” You can almost smell the scent of tobacco. “She smokes.” These are perhaps the most frequently repeated two words in the entire play, like an echo, as if a single idea can keep a person alive.
The staging of the piece by the ingenious director Knud Adams is as precise and elegant as the language. The son starts off a visitor, lingering on the periphery, and eventually is able to re-enter mother’s sphere and engage in an unfiltered conversation with her. When that happens it’s particularly powerful.
This is an extremely quiet play. The slightest rustling from the audience (let alone someone with a chronic cough) might ruin it. It’s a piece that demands, as well as commands, your undivided attention. It helps that the two actors are both tremendous presences to be reckoned with. Fliakos portrays the son as the personification of being grounded, and has the ability to treat each word delicately. It also helps that he’s no stranger to performing organically and masterfully with just words, without the assistance of any circumstantial design elements. (Those who listen to audio books might recognize his voice from Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, The Nix, and many more.)
Standing with equal footing is Caroline Lagerfelt, who plays (Andy’s) mother. She possesses the ability to be so exquisitely delicate, and simultaneously so powerful. It’s astonishing to witness someone who commands the entire theatre space while leaning on a bed, without moving an inch.
Notes on My Mother’s Decline is, to be sure, not a fun play to see (if that’s what you want for an evening out). But it’s a gorgeous piece of theatre made with care and an abundance of love. It’s a narrative with which I personally resonated, one where every detail is made deliciously vivid, which makes me believe that it’s a narrative with universal relevance for anyone who has had, or will have, to say goodbye to their mothers.
(Notes On My Mother's Decline plays at 4th Street Theatre, 83 East 4th Street, through October 27, 2019. The running time is 1 hour 15 minutes with no intermission. Performances are Tuesdays through Saturdays at 7:30, and Sundays at 3. Tickets are $35 – $45 and are available at playco.org.)
Notes On My Mother's Decline is by Andy Bragen. Directed by Knud Adams. Set Design by Marsha Ginsberg. Lighting Design by Oona Curley. Sound Design by Per Mills Weiss. Costume Design by Sophia Choi.
The cast is Ari Fliakos and Caroline Lagerfelt.