Unanswered Questions

Andrea Caban’s Questions My Mother Can’t Answer revels in revelations but might leave you guessing.

I have a confession to make: I find all adults fascinating. Children are charming, but with so little control over the shape of their lives, and with a still-developing self-consciousness, they usually don’t have much to tell (quite yet). Adults, on the other hand, are right in the middle of a dozen enduring conflicts — sexual, moral, racial, ethnic, financial, romantic, political, existential — and they can’t help but win my attention with just a little honesty. The physicist Richard Feynman said something relevant: “Everything’s interesting if you look deeply enough.” Well, I don’t know about “everything” (don’t care much for geology), but just set me next to someone who’s feeling candid about him/herself, and I’m hooked for an hour. Longer if I’m allowed to ask questions.

This tendency may explain why I’m both impressed and disappointed by Andrea Caban’s Questions My Mother Can’t Answer, currently playing at the Straz Center Shimberg Playhouse. Caban’s a splendidly talented actress, and the real women she “interviews” (and plays the parts of) are just as truthful and uninhibited as I could possibly want. But as I’ve learned over the years, the hard part of studying humans isn’t getting them to come clean — it’s finding, with or without their help, the principles behind the phenomena. On this score, Caban’s play doesn’t really work: she never convincingly demonstrates that her characters are anything more than an arbitrary sample, or that the moral they leave her with couldn’t have been drawn from an entirely different group.

What I do find are eight or so different examples of Charles Olson’s line in The Kingfishers: “What does not change/is the will to change.” These women have never stopped searching for satisfaction in life. But who has? Isn’t that just instinct?

Caban, in her 30s, tells us early in the play that it was being hit by a cab that set off her need to talk with women in their 60s. The accident didn’t break any bones, but still made her conscious of her mortality and the feeling that “I don’t know how to be a wife. Or even a woman for that matter!” So she decided to inquire about the lives of senior females, in the hope that they could illuminate her own quest. We meet each one, wonderfully impersonated by the actress: Mary, the Moroccan Jewish woman, determined not to be like her passive mother; and Lisa, the lesbian healer from Boise, who changed her life because she “wasn’t willing to spend any more time living in the fear and stuff I had been living in.” There’s Gay, the “mountain gal” who loves politics, and Jill, the African-American professor with a white husband who eventually found that her match, too, was another woman. Norwegian-born Brit, who is still learning to be assertive, tells Caban that “marriage to me is not for wimps,” and Caban’s Aunt Shirley insists that when she entered into union with a man, “that was as good as gold.” And finally there’s Caban’s mother Betty, with whom the actress is reluctant, at first, to speak, but who eventually tells all about her difficult first marriage. Each woman is given a different voice and a different set of bodily gestures, and that’s usually — but not always — enough to avoid confusion. As for the “dialogue,” it’s always intelligent and efficient. I’d love to meet some of these women at a long party.

And there are high points. For me, the most memorable is Moroccan Mary’s story of how she forced her son Charlie, suffering from cerebral palsy, to rise above his condition. Caban is riveting as she tells of the day she determined to insist that her son dress himself, even against his objections, and even while aching to see him struggle so desperately. For years, she explains, this sort of tough love continued — but eventually her son went to university and became a lawyer. The triumph she feels — not for herself but for Charlie — is potently communicated by Caban in an inspired performance. This is terrific theater, whether or not it combines with the other “interviews” in some coherent way.

I don’t think it does. Still, Caban’s acting is an event in itself, and her sincerity shines from first moment to last. I’m curious to see what comes next in her repertoire. She’s a profoundly talented actress and a searching writer. I sense that there’s even better work ahead.

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