Anna Cantor has been nursing her very own deep, dark secret for decades. Go figure. Her grown son Seth is especially taken aback by her revelation, as he has always considered his mother at best an average situational liar. Glossing over defining moments of her life seems to him more than a stretch for his straight-shooting, none-too-sentimental mom.
An oldish Jewish widow who has suddenly decided to tell all, Anna is the titular matriarch in the poignant, pithy Our Mother's Brief Affair. This regional premiere of Richard Greenberg's deceptively glib, gorgeously penned play puts a Long Island accent on memory and family, fact and fable, truth and guilt. The work nimbly maneuvers between the mournful and the meh, revealing how life so quickly pivots from a gulp to a shrug.
Presented by PURE Theatre under the direction of Randy Neale, the production points up PURE's impeccable taste in well-crafted contemporary work, which bears up well in a black-box space. The playwright is a proven heavy hitter, having won a 2003 Tony Award, among others, for Take Me Out. In 2016, Our Mother's Brief Affair enjoyed an acclaimed run on Broadway, staged by Manhattan Theatre Club.
The set up is this: Anna (Cynthia Barnett) is on her deathbed, though apparently not for the first time. She has summoned her son, Seth (David Mandel) to her side, who in turn has summoned his sister Abby (Sharon Graci), who lives in California with her lover and their infant daughter. Together, the three characters unravel Anna's bedside assertion that she had an affair when the siblings were teenagers.
It should be said that none among the Cantor clan seems too terribly ruffled by talk of mortality. A career obituary writer, Seth has cultivated a tender affection for his "deads," as he calls the subjects of his work. At the same time, Abby spends her days in Laguna Beach reading Holocaust tales to her blissfully ignorant baby girl. Anna herself is much more likely to ask for a mirror on her deathbed than spiritual succor, so says her son.
Often the characters on stage make their observations directly to the audience, splicing Anna's unvarnished account of her hidden interludes with Seth's skepticism of his mother's version of events. The action takes place on a spare set punctuated by staggered park benches in front of a scrim that is often awash with autumnal foliage, in Anna's favorite orange hue.
The rub is that Anna is not entirely cogent, mixing up words like stethoscope and viola, bolloxing key details in her recollection of her affair. Some facts can be corroborated; some cannot. In the space between proven fact and Anna's outlandish, unpalatable claims, Seth works to coax her history into a version he can more comfortably accept. He is, after all, an obituary writer, so spinning a life this way or that is an occupational hazard.
However Anna arrives at her version of events, there are some profoundly transformative memories kicking around in her conscience that are keen to out themselves. The play hammers home how Anna and Seth are at odds with their view on the truth in even the most benign encounter. "There was a wind," says Anna. "It's not windy," states Seth. "Was. Don't you know the meaning of 'was'?" his mother rejoins.
To tug away at these truths, the PURE production draws from its ensemble in four subtly strong performances. As Anna, Cynthia Barnett commands the stage and her story, darting from the Anna of a hospital bed to the Anna of a discreet motel bed, vanquishing the matter-of-fact to get to the murky regrets that so many years ago propelled many of her crucial life decisions.
As the family works together and against one another to tell Anna's story, Our Mother's Brief Affair succeeds in demonstrating just how fleeting, and perhaps even gratuitous, some of those facts actually are. Self-identity it seems is an elusive proposition; at the end of the day, who you are is, for better or worse, left to the work of your obituary writer. This ruminative, yet richly humorous play reveals how self-perception shifts in the wind — that is, if there was any wind at all.