From real-life Joan “Mommie Dearest” Crawford to the Glass Castle mother, to the (hopefully) fictitious mothers played by Piper Laurie in Carrie and Mary Tyler Moore in Ordinary People, toxic, cold and narcissistic mothers are a literary staple. They abuse their children in unique and twisted ways, refusing them the love they need and crave. Their children can develop lifelong anxiety and a sense of worthlessness.
Or they can channel their traumatic experiences into art. Rachel Parker joins the virtual support group found in theater, that most collaborative of arts. Even her solo show, The Wolfe & The Bird, through Oct. 10 at the Matrix Theatre, lists 10 collaborators. (In part, that’s because even though she’s alone onstage throughout her 90-minute performance, six voice actors play 21 major and minor characters from her life story.)
Rachel Parker grew up in Michigan between Flint and Pontiac, the daughter of a second-shift GM tool and dye worker, Tom, and an unfulfilled beauty, Gladys. Unlike Bess Myerson, whose daughter created her own toxic-mother solo show, Gladys Parker was denied the opportunity to leave Michigan and trade on her beauty, and she vents her frustration in ways both horrifying and (sometimes) darkly humorous.
Daughter Rachel presents a litany of abuse covering her harrowing life from ages eight to 18. Rachel the child often despairs to the point of hyperventilating, but Rachel the adult presents the pain with control and confidence. At one point she describes how she learned that worms are able to regenerate, as long as not too much has been damaged or severed. Throughout her performance, she shows how she herself regenerated, rising from the ashes of an abusive childhood to create this moving and powerful show.
The spare set leaves Parker plenty of room to move, and she does so with a dancer’s grace. She cringes at her mother’s onslaught of cruelty. She shows off what she’s learned in ballet class. She swaps out clothes from her dresser drawers. And, as every soaring daughter of a toxic mother must, she gets the hell out as soon as she can.
The show’s creative team has lifted up its star, through the sensitive direction of Alina Phelan and a perfectly curated collection of music. Silvie Zamora is properly unnerving as the voice of Gladys. In fact, the distinctive voices of Parker’s family members, teachers and others are sufficient; Parker’s luminous onstage presence stands on its own. This is a one-woman show with a unique voice and a happy ending.
The Wolfe & The Bird is one of many shows in LA’s new fall season. It has a brief run, with performances Saturdays at 8:00pm (2:00pm on October 9 only) and Sundays at 2:00pm at the Matrix Theatre, 7657 Melrose Ave. Purchase tickets ($18) here.