‘Motherhouse’ at Rivendell Explores the Complicated Faces of Grief

“My mother hates her body / We share the same outline / She swears that she loves mine” – Lucy Dacus

Annie’s mother is dead. She enlists her four aunts– her mother’s sisters– to help write the eulogy. None of the women know what to contribute. Motherhouse reveals the complications that come with grieving a close and complicated relative.

Over a kitchen table surrounded by updated, stainless steel appliances, the women greet each other with a cacophony of “you’ve gotten so thin!”s. The dissonance of the beautiful, upper-middle-class kitchen and the complete animosity the women have towards food and their own bodies thrusts the audience into the world of the play. This is a family where appearances are prioritized, and trauma is swept under the rug.

When I attend a play at Rivendell, I am expecting to see an intimate play that is by and for women. Developed between 2020-2022 through a series of readings and workshops with playwright Tuckie White and Rivendell’s ensemble, Motherhouse delivers. Acted entirely by Rivendell ensemble members (including Artistic Director, Tara Mallen), the production has a palpable sense of comfortability between the actors. This helps ease the pain of the tougher moments throughout the play, which come often as this play gets intense fast.

Motherhouse is so rife with conflict, I often longed for a moment of love, joy, or understanding between the women on stage. A vast majority of the moments shared between the women are either hushed allusions to abuse or outbursts at one another, which ultimately crescendo into sobbed screams and revelations about violent trauma from the past. While I enjoy and often seek out complicated stories about flawed and/or hurt women, I always want to leave the play lamenting their fear and pain. Instead, I found myself emotionally detaching from the never-ending conflict, holding my breath, and waiting for quietude that came far and few between.

Admittedly, I was a bit confused on the intended tone of the production. The pre-show music was eerie, quiet, and low, which accompanied the title Motherhouse and perfectly secured my prediction for a thriller. The play has elements of the supernatural in which the house itself (or perhaps it’s Annie’s mother) is sending messages to Annie through power outages and sudden bursts of music playing through the house. However, this underlying plot point takes a backseat to the kitchen-sink-drama during the rest of the play. The two tones felt more at odds with each other than they did complimentary.

In the director’s note, Azar Kazemi describes Motherhouse as capturing “the beautiful and complicated way we hold onto pain as an ultimate act of love.” While I wish I’d gotten to see more of the love between the characters, I did leave Rivendell examining my own relationships to my female relatives.

Motherhouse runs at Rivendell Theatre Ensemble’s storefront at 5779 N Ridge Ave, Chicago, IL 60660, now extended until June 25, 2023.

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Aunt Tucker – Mary Cross
Annie – Jessica Ervin
Aunt Weezie – Meighan Gerachis
Aunt Lizzie – Tara Mallen
Aunt Barb – Jane Baxter Miller

Director – Azar Kazemi
Production Stage Manager – Patrick Fries
Dramaturg – Jerre Dye
Scenic Design – Lauren M. Nichols
Lighting Design – Gabrielle Strong
Sound Design – Victoria Delorio
Costume Design – Janice Pytel
Props Design – Ivy Treccani
Production Manager/Technical Director – Evan Sposato
Master Electrician – Chase Barron
Scenic Artist – Rose Johnson
Assistant Stage Manager – Casey Fort
Assistant Director/Props Assistant – Erin Sheets
Costume Assistant – Hailey Springer
Assistant Lighting Designer – Brittany Pearson
Box Office Manager – Trisha Hooper
Community Engagement – Brit Cooper Robinson
Graphic Design – Anthony Churchill
Production Intern – Melanie Dodson

Photo by Michael Brosilow (l to r): Mary Cross and Jess Ervin.

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