Sydney Shoell and Benjamin Young in My Brother Was a Vampire
Leo Tolstoy’s now-ubiquitous quote about every unhappy family being unhappy in its own way might have become a cliché, but clichés get that way for a reason: We feel that they’re true. Complex family relationships are the stuff of great drama, and there’s a seemingly infinite number of permutations for exploring that dynamic dramatically. So while two world-premiere plays by Utah playwrights, now running at the Rose Wagner Center, both deal with tense familial interactions, they do so in distinctive enough ways that both of them are worth checking out.
In Morag Shepherd’s My Brother Was a Vampire
, produced by Plan-B Theatre Company, the key on-stage interaction is between two siblings: Callum (Benjamin Young) and Skye (Sydney Shoell). As the first scene unfolds, it’s clear the two are semi-estranged—at least five years have passed since the two last saw one another—and the narrative then proceeds to move in reverse chronology back to their childhood to explore what led them to this point. And also, the possibility that both Callum and Skye are vampires.
The exact nature of the siblings’ possibly-supernatural nature remains somewhat elusive throughout the play, but the reality of whether Skye actually can transform into a fox is less relevant than the way Shepherd is using vampirism as a metaphor for being in a dysfunctional family. As more details emerge about Callum and Skye’s parents—including emotional and physical abuse, as well as their mother’s likely mental illness—there’s a sense of childhood trauma as an infection that can be passed on, and which makes mere existence feel eternal. Most effectively, thanks to the strong performances by Young and Shoell, My Brother Was a Vampire
finds something tragic in a brother and sister who clearly love one another and are the only ones who understand what the other has been through, but also remind one another of a painful past. In a tight 60-minute running time, Shepherd conveys how heartbreaking it is to need someone while also needing to be away from them.
Nicole Finney, Barb Gandy and Colleen Baum in Mother, Mother: The Many Mothers of Maude
A very different kind of tension drives the action in Julie Jensen’s Mother, Mother: The Many Mothers of Maude
, produced by Pygmalion. While the titular character is Maude Adams (Nicole Finney), the successful real-life actor whose accomplishments include originating the role of Peter Pan on Broadway in 1905, the action really focuses on the life of Maude’s mother, Annie Adams (Colleen Baum). Born in 19th-century Utah, Annie longs from her childhood to be “an actress upon the stage,” even attempting to use the connections of her uncle, Brigham Young (Darryl Stamp, playing all of the play’s male roles). But a variety of obstacles stand in her way, from the lack of support from her own mother (Barb Gandy) to the limitations placed on a woman who might not be considered conventionally attractive.
Baum’s performance provides the biggest jolt of energy in Mother, Mother
, spanning decades from precociously dramatic adolescent to melancholy senior. It’s a terrific exploration of a woman facing the impediments of her era, and becomes the fulcrum in a compelling look at mother-daughter relationships—specifically, the way even a woman who felt limited by the expectations of her own mother can’t help doing the same thing to her own daughter. And there’s a solid subplot in the relationship between Annie and her childhood friend Martha Hughes (Tamara Howell)—who went on to become the first woman elected to the Utah state senate—related to the shifting opportunities available to women as the century turned. Jensen attempts to cover perhaps a few too many topics along the way, from abortion access to Maude’s gender-bending proclivities, but the heart of Mother, Mother
remains anchored in the tug of war between what women dream of doing, and what they feel “allowed” to do. And along the way, it reveals something of a corollary to Tolstoy’s quote: Even within the same unhappy family, from generation to generation, that unhappiness might become different.
My Brother Was a Vampire runs through Nov. 13 at the Rose Wagner Center Studio Theatre.
Mother, Mother: The Many Mothers of Maude runs through Nov. 19 at the Rose Wagner Center Black Box Theatre.