Anybody who has trod the boards knows that little blitz of stage fright that can flood through an actor when a member of the family is in the audience.
Jane Press, author and star of the play “My Mother’s Keeper,” has long since dispensed with any such anticipation. Her mother, Della, attended the play’s world premiere last year at the Carl Cherry Center for the Arts in Carmel, Calif., and — at age 83 — will make the journey south to see its L.A. premiere at the Electric Lodge in Venice this weekend. Press’ daughter, Monica Steiner, also saw the play in Carmel, mere weeks before giving birth to the playwright’s first grandchild, Colin Steiner.
But even when she doesn’t have kin in the seats, Press spends her evenings at the theater surrounded by family. “My Mother’s Keeper” is a memory play about four generations of the author’s family, from her great-grandmother all the way down to Press, who is a character in the play both as her adult self and — played by a different actress — as 11-year-old Janie.
“The interesting thing is that, as we go along in rehearsals, I see my grandmother and my mother coming through. The actors start to channel them,” Press said. “At one point, I play my great-grandmother and she comes through me. It’s a very interesting experience. I keep saying to the director, ‘The angels are circling.’ ”
Perhaps, but they’re not always particularly angelic.
While Press can talk about the mishegoss with which all colorful families — Jewish or otherwise — must deal, “My Mother’s Keeper” presents the “mish” (as Press calls it) as both funny and quite painful. The play spans nearly 100 years, jumping between the early 1900s and the present day. An event from 1914 involving Press’ great-grandmother Lina Moscowitz sets off a cycle of damage and dysfunction that will filter down through subsequent generations. Press says she wrote the work — the first she has written after decades of acting — in part to “break the chain.”
“A major theme of the play is the blessings and curses that are inherent and inherited from, in this case, mother to child,” Press said. “I specifically looked at the mother-daughter dynamic, which is just as specific as the father-son dynamic. However, everyone has or had a mother. That’s what makes this play universal.”
If “My Mother’s Keeper” is our guide, then Press’ own dame was a piece of work. The opening monologue finds Press making reference to the abusive relationship between Joan and Christina Crawford alleged in the memoir “Mommie Dearest.” As depicted in the play, Della is selfish, controlling, hard-hearted and physically abusive to her children, who call her “the police woman.”
During an interview, when she speaks of her mother — Della Press, née Thelma Colodny — Jane calls her “Della” more often than “Ma.” Even so, things have changed.
“She’s mellowed a lot. She’s a real doll now,” Press said of Della. “I’m the only one of her four children who speaks to her or who has any relationship with her. Old age is a great leveler, and when your children become adults and won’t have anything to do with you, I think that got her attention.”
That understanding between mother and daughter was hard won. For Press, breaking the chain took years of therapy and recovery through 12-step programs.
“We are so fortunate to have such wonderful tools available to us,” she said. “I finally felt strong enough to be able to address the issues I wanted to share. And I wanted to give voice to this whole generation of women that are being portrayed in ways that I think can be deeper, stronger, more accurate and funnier.”
Ah, yes, funny.
For all its emotional thorniness, “My Mother’s Keeper” is intended to provoke guffaws and tears in equal measure. Press’ Grandma Ida and her cadre of mah jongg-playing Brooklyn bubbes are built for laughs, but they are depicted exactly how the then-adolescent Jane Press remembers them. Ida Colodny — the funniest of them all — was the equivalent of a stand-up comedian, a woman constantly enlisted to tell jokes at large social and family gatherings. In fact, one of the props used in the play is a plastic bag filled with punch lines that actually belonged to Colodny. The actress who plays Ida rummages through it and gives young Janie — and the audience — a sampling of the now-legendary Ida wit.
“She was very beloved in Brooklyn,” Press said. “In those days, before TV, they had large gatherings in all our houses. We have a black-and-white picture somewhere of people dressed up all around these big round tables and they’re all turned toward the camera and smiling, and there are cigarettes and ashtrays and cigars, and everybody’s having a great time. They used to have big get-togethers, big luncheons and dinners, and my grandmother was the entertainment.”
The play depicts the tender and very close relationship shared between 11-year-old Jane and Grandma Ida, but director Robin McKee, who has been with “My Mother’s Keeper” since its inception, insists that the play is shmaltz-free.
“I don’t like sentimentality,” said McKee, who is not Jewish. “Whatever kind of sentimental stuff was in there, we’ve been able to weed out. I think I helped bring a sort of concept to it. It was a beautiful series of memories and scenes. By reordering scenes and connecting ideas, we were able to find a shape to the piece that leads to an emotional truth.”
During the play’s Carmel run, Press and McKee heard from numerous audience members who insisted that the exploits of the Moscowitz and Colodny clan closely mirrored the “mish” of their own families. And these comments came from families who were Irish, Asian and Indian. The humor may be Jewish, but the experience of being part of a big, crazy family is universal, McKee said.
Press, who lives in Monterey, hopes to take the play to New York eventually. They have sent “My Mother’s Keeper” to Tyne Daly in the hopes of interesting her in the role of Grandma Ida.
As for the L.A. run, which will last through June 16, the timing — and particularly the opening — is by no means coincidental.
“We have two shows on Mother’s Day, and it’s the perfect Mother’s Day experience,” Press said. “But I don’t recommend it for children under the age of 9.”
“My Mother’s Keeper” plays Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m. Sun., May 12: 3 p.m., 8 p.m. Through June 16. Electric Lodge, 1416 Electric Ave., Venice. $28. (310) 306-1854. electriclodge.org