Questions My Mother Can’t Answer
Performed and Written by Andrea Caban
soloNOVA Arts Festival
May 23, 2011
Getting slammed to the pavement by a New York taxi is as fine an occasion as any for the start of a "vision quest." Just such an incident jars Andrea Caban to begin the journey. The Native American vision quest can be defined as: "the learning and initiation process of the apprentice under the guidance of elders." Both women and men engaged in such quests. For Andrea, the comprehensive trauma of her accident and its repercussions leave her with "time out of joint," an uneasy bewilderment, and a kind of universal aversion. Her customary daily life is decidedly "off," and she wishes to regain what she calls her "flow." Thus commences Andrea Caban’s excellent and ultimately profound solo play Questions My Mother Can’t Answer.
The quest upon which Andrea is propelled -- or compelled -- is at first unclear. She explains that she does not know quite why she is starting all of this, but the process gradually takes on definition as she meets and interviews her Elders: women who are twice her age, actually about the age of her mother. Andrea records the oral histories of what some might consider "ordinary" women she meets along the way, but what is shown is that when responding to the right questions posed in the right way, no woman is ordinary. The primary Elders are: Lisa, who undulates through life, becoming at one point a "donations-only" prostitute to make ends meet and keep her from being a "real" lady of the night; Jill, an African-American college professor who late in life unexpectedly finds all she would want in a man in another woman; Aunt Shirley, the "tell it like it is" Jewish mother Andrea never had; Gay, a hands-on healer; Brit, a housewife from Norway whose seemingly obsequious voice belies hidden strengths; Genevieve, encountered on the subway, who even though she had no idea why she agrees to speak with Andrea, does so; and Mary, a Moroccan who delights in ballroom dancing, extricated herself from a bad marriage, and whose tough-love raising of a handicapped child prepares him to become a self-sustaining success in adult life. And then there is Andrea’s own mother, an ongoing presence during the play, via her voice messages issuing from an on-stage answering machine, and whom Andrea eventually interviews as well.
These interviewees were given constrictive notions about "a woman’s place" in what persists in being a "man’s world." Against (and transcending) this legacy of mid-century pre-feminist discourse, Ms. Caban portrays the various women as they frankly answer questions regarding their childhoods, parents, joys, challenges, children, lovers, marriages (and their the dissolutions), and living alone. As the play moves forward, each of these "ordinary" women display extraordinary and noble facets, as does Andrea herself.
Ms. Caban culled these women’s oral histories from her encounters with real woman, and transforms herself on stage to portray each one, embodying them totally. The play is part "confessional" in that her "vision quest" and the process of developing the play was a personal project. I particularly liked when she gave her characters the opportunities for concentrated monologues, which Ms. Caban, skilled actor that she is, sustained with engaging intensity.
Confession: I can be impatient with women’s discourses. For the first half of the play I found myself being a bit dismissive as the various women were introduced, and as they initially chattered in a manner that causes many men to just "go south." Happily, it did not take long for this predisposition to wear off. Without noticing it at the time, my initial impatience diminished, and I was hearing the women as vividly portrayed by Ms. Caban in a decidedly engaged manner.
Andrea refrained, it seemed to me, from directly encouraging her interviewees to be philosophical. Yet, the questions she posed ultimately drew out graceful and even exalted perspectives, the kind that novelists work hard to have their characters arrive at naturally.
Nearing the play’s conclusion, Andrea finally speaks with her mother, furthering or culminating the chain of interviews--and taking Andrea a mere stone’s throw away from her own transformation.
Not all women, it would seem, possess the hard-earned perspective that Andrea and her Elders come to display by the play’s close. They have apparently arrived at this transcendence neither by intensive psychotherapy nor self-help regimens, but by an innate disposition to a kind of mindfulness made mandatory by their life experiences. Near the play’s conclusion, six of the Elders profoundly and poignantly declare (without a whiff of cliché or melodrama) their determination to rejoice in themselves and that they love their lives. Spoken in simple language, their words were profoundly moving.
Questions My Mother Can’t Answer concludes with a brief moment in which a simple gesture performed by Andrea hints at her own movement and the completion of her vision quest. Andrea has regained her flow, her essential nature. But it is not merely Andrea’s triumph, for it is shared with her "Elders," her mother, and her audience.
Performing a solo play demands fine acting and non-stop "presence," which Andrea Caban profoundly delivers. Kudos must go to Rachel Eckerling for her powerful and sensitive direction. - Jay Reisberg
For future New York performances, please check Andrea's website: http://www.questionsmymothercantanswer.com/Home.html.