The Silver Cord – Oh Mother Dear!

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by: Sandi Durell

We do love our mothers, but when they suffocate and control to the degree that the scheming Mrs. Phelps (Dale Carman) demonstrates, one might get a sudden urge to grab her and shake the living daylights out of her.

The original stage production, written by Sidney Howard, was part of the 1926-27 Broadway season at the Golden Theatre, and was subsequently made into the 1933 film version with Irene Dunne and Joel McCrea. It is currently in residence at Theatre at St. Clement’s, produced by the Peccadillo Theater Company.

Well, no shaking would ever change the severe display of motherly love, as Mrs. Phelps smothers and emasculates her sons during a little homecoming party she is holding for them. Older son David (Thomas Matthew Kelley), an architect, has come home after living and working in New York and abroad, with a surprise and pregnant wife, Christina (Victoria Mack), a modern-age biologist, and youngest son Robert (Wilson Bridges), who hasn’t found a career, has recently become engaged to the spunky, dance-loving Hester (Caroline Kaplan). Although the setting takes place in 1926 (scenic & lighting by Harry Feiner), the heavy furniture and drapery are more reminiscent of Victorian, an era in which Mrs. Phelps, a rich widow, most obviously feels most comfortable in her behavior and thought processes.

It doesn’t take long for fire and water to become enmeshed when she meets her new daughter-in-law Christina who has a mind of her own, as “Mother” (as she is always called) makes it clear that she has her own ideas on where her son should live to practice his career. Christina has just received an appointment to Rockefeller University in NYC where she will work and David is to be there as well. As Mrs. Phelps makes light of this young woman’s profession, suggesting that she can arrange for Christina to work and putter around in the lab at the local hospital, the tension grows as these two sparring partners ready for the knock-down punch.

Mrs. Phelps swiftly attacks Hester to her son Robert suggesting that they aren’t really in love, and that he must end the relationship. Robert, a mama’s boy, rather than stand fast, acquiesces causing an emotional blow as Hester falls apart, realizing she must leave the house immediately and get away from this horrible woman who levels that much control.

When Mrs. Phelps sidles up to David while he is getting ready for bed for one of their midnight talks (like they used to have in years’ past) and plants a too long kiss on his lips, as she ingeniously practices her craftiness and control, an entire new dimension evolves. She has surely been successful in keeping both sons tied to her rich umbilical cord; David breaking free only because he spent time away; – Robert, alas, too weak and trapped.

Director Dan Wackerman has recast Dale Carman in the role of Mrs. Phelps because he (Carman) had played the role 18 years prior in a Peccadillo production. Was it a good idea? Well, although he is quite cunning and unlikeable, the portrayal also speaks of caricature, with a flair of drag queen aura. Surely it would have been exciting to see a great female in the role, and there are many.

Mack is very vivacious as the out spoken modern Christina and Kaplan gives a good portrayal as the hysterical jilted Hester. The costumes, especially 20s style dresses, are well illustrated by Gail Cooper-Hecht.

Although this dated piece is not for every audience, it certainly gives good insight into dysfunctional mother-son relationships and raises one’s blood pressure whenever Mrs. Phelps spews her cruel venom.

The Silver Cord continues thru July 14th. OvationTix (212.352.3101) www.thepeccadillo.com

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