Family Ties. A poetic story of self-discovery. by Lisa McKeown @lisammckeown
What do you like best about yourself?
Well that question goes hand in hand with who you take yourself to be. But what defines us? It's precisely that question that this play, based on Priscila Uppal's memoir "Projection: Encounters with my Runaway Mother," is asking as Renata journeys to Brazil to find her mother who abandoned her and her brother, along with their disabled father, in Canada when Renata was five years old.
What she finds there is, perhaps not unexpectedly, not what she was hoping for. The set design presents us with the metaphor of the world she finds there (or is it metonymy?): a glorious pile of garbage in the centre of the stage, into which Renata descends at the beginning of the show, and from which the mother and grandmother emerge, greeting Renata at first with breathless enthusiasm. What does this reunion hold in store?
Well, in part what follows is a riveting and poetic theatrical experience. Elizabeth Saunders fires up the stage in her depiction of a narcissistic mother whose conversational strategy mostly includes listing off her favourite things about herself. Maggie Huculak is hilarious as Renata's grandmother, obsessed with her possessions and who will get them after she dies, and who often delves a bit too deeply into the graphic details of her courtship with her late husband. Richard Zeppieri is fantastic as Renata's sardonic interlocutor and uncle. He actually comes off as more of a narrator than a character, and I was beginning to wonder if he was a figment of imagination or a ghost, until one of the characters grudgingly acknowledges him. In fact the men are strikingly absent in this play, the story revolving around the three female characters: daughter, mother, grandmother.
The character of Renata is probably the most complex of the cast, and though often endearing in her quiet resentment and confusion, Mina James is also overshadowed by the three other characters. Though it's hard to say if that's an indication of different levels of talent, or if it's simply difficult to have a sense of self when surrounded by such flashy superficiality. Renata is a character looking for answers and a reckoning, but instead what she discovers is a woman who has 1000 things that she loves about herself, and nothing to say about her daughter, no sense of who this person is that she left all those years ago.
She is unable to really see her daughter because she can only focus on what she wants to see; this is a play about people who are smiling and dancing, despite being surrounded - literally and figuratively - by a huge pile of garbage. 'Every day is Mother's Day in Brazil!' someone cries, as the characters don I heart my Mother T-shirts (just as easily and carelessly removed when the number is done). With the help of a projected slideshow, Renata's mother treats us to a whirlwind guided tour of Brazil. When Renata expresses disappointment at such superficiality, her mother is bemused, replying that she's obviously just saved everyone a needless journey and after all, now there's more time for shopping and Carnivale!
One of the questions that Uppal's play left me asking though, is: in an age of obsession of family trees and popular culture's uptake of ideas about DNA and how that influences our biology and our character and, in a sense, our future, how much should we allow our parents and our lineage to define our sense of ourselves? As an adopted child myself, there was always a kind of existential freedom I found in not being surrounded by my genetic future. But I think that can apply to most of us: we are not our parents, and DNA doesn't equate to determinism. And so the question that the show pivots towards is not just how do our parents define us, but how do we let go of their ability to define us, either by their presence or by their absence? And, finally, what is the nature of the love that binds these familial relationships that mean so much to us in the first place?