A motherlode of memories about one mom

Theater Review

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By Doug Deuchler


Open Door Repertory Theater's world premiere of improv actress and comedienne Mary Olivieri's one-woman show, Sex is Painful ... and Other Lessons My Mother Taught Me, played to an enthusiastic full house, May 7, which gave her performance a standing ovation. 

The program states this is "a work crafted as a love letter to Moms everywhere." By the time you are reading this, of course, it's too late for Mother's Day, but this delightful show not only amuses but can also make you think fondly of your own mom and her particular type of maternal wisdom. Directed by Vincent Kracht, Olivieri's solo musings about her mother are often heartwarming and hilarious.

Since the 1970s, feminist writers and comics have often rebelled against their mothers, portraying them as either devouring monsters or self-sacrificing martyrs. But rarely do they show much warmth or sympathy for their moms. Olivieri's performance is affectionate, amusing and insightful as she mines a motherlode of memories. In this autobiographical work she plays both roles — herself and her mom, Betty, back and forth — illustrating the woman's particular pattern of parenting and her many delightfully zany observations, rules, and regulations.

The title, Sex is Painful, is certainly an attention-getter but perhaps it's rather misleading. This show is never raunchy, vulgar, or graphic. In fact, relatively little of it focuses on sex. But, yes, Oivieri and her siblings were told to keep themselves pure when they left the house to go on dates. Sex was routinely portrayed as unpleasant. When their cat Spookers was in heat, screeching and howling in the night, Mary's mother would point out: "That's S-E-X." 

Her Irish Catholic mom, now in her 80s, came of age in the 1950s, married an Italian, and began raising her five children. Betty always went around the house singing, slinging malaprops, and was rarely at a loss for punctuating any interaction with crazy comments like, "What's the matter — got a pickle up your fanny?" Though the family lived in "an idyllic little Connecticut town," Mary is now a Chicagoan and not only an improv performer, writer, and actress but also a mom herself. 

Much of the humor in this one-woman monologue is delightfully zany, illustrating that bizarre kind of logic mothers have always employed. When Mary's friend, Anita, whose parents were divorced, got a trampoline and Mary kept begging to get one too, her mom asked, "What would you rather have, a trampoline or a father?" 

Maybe other audience members were drifting back to their childhoods too. I kept thinking of my own mother who often justified her edicts with "Because I said so, that's why!" If I were whining or grumbling at the dinner table, she'd say, "Shut your mouth and eat your supper!" or "Will you just look at the dirt on the back of your neck!" Standard fare — Momisms dispensed in every home. If something got broken: "This is why we can't have nice things." If I wanted to jump on the bandwagon: "If all the other kids jumped off a bridge, would you?" The weirdest was, "Always change your underwear in case you get run over."

Olivieri often uses fluttery hands and various postures and facial expressions to convey her mother. But there were times when I could not distinguish which character was talking, Betty or Mary. 

The understated art direction by Don Harder Jr. works perfectly, with several stools on an Oriental carpet. Images to suggest the locations are projected on the backdrop — such as a swatch of old dining room wallpaper or a Sears Roebuck-type 1970s kitchen with avocado appliances. At other times, we see snapshots of Olivieri and her family members.

A number of the lessons Mary learned growing up with her mom are periodically flashed on the back wall, such as "If You Act Insane You Can Make Your Children Disappear."

It was exciting to experience this new show in Olivieri's first solo public performance. Her script shows that insight, humor and tender loving care went into the writing. But some of it still needs a bit more punch and polish. It's charming and funny but requires some further development. The ending especially seems tacked on and preachy. 

I really wondered as I watched this sweet, funny show what mom Betty thought when she first read her daughter's work. Olivieri includes a note in the program: "Betty could argue that my version of these stories is just that. My version. She has graciously allowed me to tell them based on my own memories and interpretations. And though I have chosen to write her as sweet and naïve for the most part, she is one of the smartest women I know."

There are still two performances left, this Thursday, May 14 and the following Thursday, May 21.

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Reader Comments

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Randy Craig from Chicago  

Posted: May 19th, 2015 9:53 AM

BTW They extended the show another week adding another performance on May 28th.

Lynne Bailey from Chicago  

Posted: May 14th, 2015 4:36 PM

I was lucky to be in that crowd to see the show on the 7th. Some of her stories made me laugh so hard, I cried. (Thanks, I needed that)

Susan Custer  

Posted: May 13th, 2015 5:05 AM

Omg. Mare- you're the tops. Kick ass and take names.. Love ya kiddo. Bust a vagina!

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