Mother Teresa is Dead

Katherine Venour and Kayvon Kelly Credit: Emily Cooper
Katherine Venour and Kayvon Kelly
Credit: Emily Cooper

At Pacific Theatre until March 23

Posted on March 14, 2013

Even when we’re doing good works, human frailty can undermine our best intentions. In Helen Edmundson’s Mother Teresa is Dead, each character – in his or her way – is trying to do the right thing but each is fraught with weakness and/or contradiction. Does charity begin at home or do we live in a global village and should we, therefore, be looking beyond our doorstep? Do we exaggerate the importance of our own children to the detriment of children suffering elsewhere on the planet? What really motivates people like Mother Teresa? These are huge questions for the 21st century more so than ever before because, thanks to technology, we can now see the face of starvation and the ravages of war. Guilt and compassion are well framed but unsettlingly framed in this play set in India.

Three of the four characters look good in Act 1. Frances has recently rescued Jane – barefoot, shorn à la Joan of Arc and in rags, clutching a white plastic grocery bag and huddled, howling, on the street in Madras. Frances is English, an artist estranged from her husband and two grown sons in London. Jane, a runaway wife, is also English. She’s withdrawn, eerily vacant, obviously deeply troubled but is finding some peace in Frances’ home. Until recently Jane has been working in a children’s shelter run by Srinivas who appears to be selfless in his efforts to save the street orphans of Madras.

Sebastian Kroon and Julile McIsaac Credit: Ron Reed
Sebastian Kroon and Julile McIsaac
Credit: Ron Reed

The play begins with the arrival of Mark, overflowing with foot-stamping, fist-clenching fury. Mark is Jane’s husband and he’s come to drag her back to England. She went ‘missing’ seven weeks ago and, says Mark, her five-year-old son Joe needs – and deserves – his mother.  Mark yells, flays Jane with words (“You stupid, stupid, selfish cow”) and pettily accuses her of “seeing someone else.” He rants about blacks, Jews and “all these people” taking employment away from workers back home. Why don’t they just “stay in their own country,” he rages. Three characters trying to do good; one truly bad-tempered, adolescent husband.

Act 2. Expect surprises and turnabouts that will leave you questioning your initial take on everyone. Jealousy, insecurity, infidelity and petulance bring the situation to a crisis.

This is meaty stuff that will have you chewing it over and over.

Evan Frayne directs this powerful cast for Bleeding Heart Collective, presented by Pacific Theatre. Audiences will recognize Katherine Venour (Frances), Julie McIsaac (Jane) and Sebastian Kroon (Mark) from previous Pacific Theatre shows; Kayvon Kelly (Srinivas) appears for the first time on this stage but is familiar to Bard on the Beach and Arts Club patrons. Amidst all the reversals – all of which we readily understand (we’ve probably been there ourselves on occasion), each actor slowly changes gears in Act 2. Venour, who has been composed and wise as Frances in Act 1, reveals her character’s fearful vulnerability that leads to less than charitable behavior. Kroon’s explosive, furious Mark becomes lonely, lovelorn Mark who says he’s willing to change. Kelly’s noble Srinivas falls unceremoniously from grace. But they all remain human; in fact, in their shortcomings, we probably relate to them even more. We are complicated, conflicted creatures.

McIsaac, once again, is a little powerhouse in bare feet. Her vacant expression speaks of huge psychological turmoil as Jane weighs her future. You’ll swear you can see her heart beating.

Mother Teresa is, indeed, dead and Jane does not aspire to be Mother Teresa II. But she is a mother in the ordinary sense of the word and there is a child at home longing for her. There are also many more children on the streets that need her. Whether Jane makes the right decision is left for us to decide.

Mother Teresa is Dead is laid out by designer Florence Barrett with warm, Indian fabrics and a Persian-style rug. Lush, melancholy soundscape is by James Coomber.

The play ends on a quiet, tenuously hopeful note right out of Chekhov. Lovely.

Julie McIsaac Credit: Emily Cooper
Julie McIsaac
Credit: Emily Cooper