at Chicago Dramatists Workshop
"I always thought being a killer was the worst thing you could be." Fern, a young mother who's murdered her five-year-old son, utters these words in disbelief. She admits that she killed the boy, but she just can't see herself as evil. And watching Don Hannah's effective character study, Rubber Dolly, neither can we.
Rubber Dolly, being given its U.S. premiere by M.P.D. Productions, doesn't try to excuse Fern's actions, but neither does it make her out to be a monster. Flashbacks and monologues based on Fern's and her sister Marie's memories paint a thorough portrait of a likable but stunted woman. From the opening monologue we see Fern's love for life. Recalling a time in her childhood when her mother taunted her cruelly, Fern quickly gets past the pain to lovingly recall enchanted childhood times--taking dolls on camping trips and meeting her best friend on a train. Later, as a reckless 15-year-old, she breezes into Marie's Toronto apartment filled with vague hopes for a better life, away from her cold mother.
The story, which is not told chronologically, intersperses Fern's high and low moments, such as when she becomes pregnant and her unemployed boyfriend, Joe, leaves her, and when her hyperactive son makes fun of her and her inability to make him behave. Fern's life thus seems a constant tug-of-war between her dreams and her nightmares.
Hannah doesn't so much blame Fern's upbringing as describe a vicious circle, where the cruelty of Fern's mother is passed down to Fern and finally to her son, Joey. But Marie is living proof that the cycle can be broken. Like Fern, Marie is a single mother on public aid, but while Fern reacts to the pressures of motherhood by becoming increasingly irrational, Marie learns to raise her children with love.
Though depressing, the script and this production are thoroughly enjoyable. As directed by Rachael Patterson, Hanna Dworkin's childlike Fern unfolds gradually and completely and--despite the seriousness of her actions--with warmth and humor. The scene in which she meets Joe in a bar is sharply funny, evoking all the fools who somehow seem clever when the beer is flowing and the music blasting. Chris Stolti plays beer-bellied Joe to sleazy perfection, then does a turnabout to play Fern's next boyfriend, the seemingly respectable Fred. Stolti makes the two of them seem total opposites, the bad and the good, until the moment when Fred, who's as bent on his own gratification as Joe, suggests Fern put her children in foster homes.
Rubber Dolly is a little too funny at one point. Fern meets another welfare mother, Anna (Cynthia Jackson), at the public aid office. Ironically, this irreverent and irresponsible mother, who consistently makes fun of her five "bad" children, swears by the saying "God couldn't be everywhere, so he created mothers." This material is almost perfect for a stand-up comedy routine, and it's a worthy vehicle for Jackson's comedic talents. But at a point in the story when Fern's violent outbursts are increasing, the hearty laughs Anna provokes seem out of place.
Clay Snider's set effectively combines realism and fantasy. A table and chairs represent a universal kitchen in which Marie folds laundry and battles with her willful sister and Fern chases her disobedient son and flirts/fights with her boyfriends. To the left of the kitchen area a single chair stands alone, and here Marie and Fern deliver their monologues, as if giving testimony to a psychologist, priest, or judge. A more ethereal world exists behind a black screen that's alternately transparent and opaque. Since Joey is its only inhabitant, this netherworld is a chilling harbinger of his death.
So many scene changes are handled smoothly and imaginatively that it comes as a surprise when still more of them are slow and awkward. In the best transition, sounds of a rattling train (sound by Walter Brody) and flashing light on a dark stage (lighting by Sue McElhaney) briefly introduce the figure of a man in a doorway. This dreamlike interlude takes us from Fern's monologue, about a sexual encounter with a sailor on a train, to the scene in which she arrives in Toronto to continue her search for love. More frequently, however, the scene changes disrupt an established mood rather than add to it. The worst break comes when Fern and Fred are making love on a table and the light fades to only semidarkness: we can see the actors break from character, coolly disentangle themselves, and walk offstage.
Though noticeable, such awkwardness hardly impinges on the overall professionalism of this production. Never sanctimonious, Rubber Dolly tackles the hard-to-handle issue of child abuse with compassion for all parties.