Memories of a Mother, Brought Fondly to Life

By Michael J. Toscano
Thursday, November 17, 2005

Fans of actress Catherine Flye have just a few chances left to see her in "For the Pleasure of Seeing Her Again," which Alexandria's MetroStage has produced primarily as a vehicle for her considerable talents. Almost a one-woman show, the play is a mix of character study and memoir, allowing Flye to demonstrate why she is an audience favorite.

"For the Pleasure of Seeing Her Again" is a sentimental series of vignettes written by French Canadian playwright and novelist Michel Tremblay in memory of his mother, a warm and loving figure whom he credits with inspiring his artistic sensibilities even as she raised him with firm direction. He calls her Nana and lets us meet her through the memories of a loving son.

As Tremblay portrays her, Nana is a compulsive storyteller who enlarges the most mundane events and observations into epic tales to make a drab, working-class life in early 1950s Canada bearable, thus passing on to her son the desire to write and create.

One of the pillars of modern theater is the pathology of mother-playwright relationships. The torment caused by mothers absent or overbearing, psychologically frail or abusive, has given writers some of their best material. Would we have the masterpieces of Tennessee Williams or Eugene O'Neill without mothers who contributed to their sons' need to work out their problems on paper?

Well, there is none of that here. Tremblay has written a love letter to his mom, and Flye brings her warmly to life. In fact, the only other character in the play, the Narrator (played by Bruce Holmes), who resembles the playwright as a younger man, tells us in the opening moments that we are not going to experience theater; we are just going to meet an ordinary woman.

That promise is more or less kept, until the closing moments, when a high degree of theatricality is introduced in a sentimental finale that allows the son a chance to say an extended goodbye to his mother. But for most of the 90 minutes, the Narrator provides brief segues between Nana's stories, observations and the exhortations from a mother to the son she worries about, instilling in him a love for words and illusion and drama.

Flye weaves a strong spell. Directed by John Vreeke, she brings as much realism as is possible in what is essentially hagiography. She gives Nana some prickly moments, and one can frequently sense inner fire, tension and weariness beneath the placid exterior.

It is odd that Flye, a London-trained actor, plays the role of a French Canadian woman by speaking in an English accent. Odder still, it doesn't seem to matter, especially as Holmes speaks with Midwestern American tones as her son.

Just as her character inhabits the playwright's memory, Flye remains onstage throughout the play, even as the son/Narrator is briefly talking to the audience about her. Vreeke usually places her just a few feet away in those moments, and she silently observes from the shadows behind one of several screens on the mostly barren stage. Holmes usually stays put in the lone chair as his character reaches back into various stages of his childhood and coming of age to summon up her tales.

Perhaps that's how he thinks of her now -- gone, but always near. The writing of this play might have been a way for the playwright to keep his mother alive and to allow him the pleasure of her company again. But thanks to Flye's gifts for creating a natural, gritty presence onstage, it's a pleasure shared by those who see the play that resulted.

"For the Pleasure of Seeing Her Again" continues through Nov. 27 at MetroStage, 1201 N. Royal St., Alexandria. Showtime is 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays and 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are available at www.boxofficetickets.com or by calling 800-494-8497. For more information, visit www.metrostage.com.