It's always a welcome shock when theatre actually enlightens us rather than confirms our assumptions, and I'm happy to report I had just such an epiphany during Judy Gold's 25 Questions for a Jewish Mother (through the weekend at the Calderwood Pavilion). Gold's monologue (developed with playwright Kate Moira Ryan) affectionately stalks its emotional prey - that neurotic, guilt-inducing, undeniably loving phenomenon known as "the Jewish mother" - via a series of interviews, asides, anecdotes about her own fraught relationship with her mom, and flat-out stand-up routines designed around Gold's own place in this storied tradition: an out lesbian with two young boys, Gold is also a practicing Jew - so she, too, is a "Jewish mother."
But that "lesbian Jewish mother" thing wasn't the shock for me - no, that came a little later in the show, when one interviewee, in gentle embarrassment, explained that her own mother, a survivor of the Holocaust, had made a neighbor promise that if things went south for the Jews in America, she would hide away her children. With even more embarrassment, the women then admitted that she, too, had done exactly the same thing - even though she was a full generation, and a hemisphere away, from the jackboots and the camps.
And somehow, in that low-key moment, I understood the long shadow of the Holocaust in a way I never had before. I appreciated in a split second how foolish it was for me to assume any Jewish faith in American democracy or virtue. And I suddenly saw the undertone of fear in "Jewish mothering" in a whole new light.
But alas, there were other enlightenments I pined for that Gold did not deliver. Her routines are witty, and her mimicry is able (though not in the same class as such "verbatim theatre" virtuosi as Culture Clash), but she fails to integrate her amusing insights into the "Jewish mother" with her own emerging identity. We never get much of a sense of what it means to be a "lesbian Jewish mother," or how Gold sees herself within this beloved, belittled tradition - how she successfully worked against it, or how she slowly succumbed to it, or whatever. And as we eventually learn that Gold is now not merely a Jewish mother but also a single mother, the void at the heart of the show becomes impossible to deny. Gold simply doesn't go where her performance inevitably leads her. This is all the more striking because it closely resembles the problem with last year's Huntington production of Well - in which performance artist Lisa Kron essentially left her lesbianism out of the equation of her relationship with her mom. Is there something about the mother-lesbian daughter relationship that's as hard to evoke on the stage as the father-gay son one is? I'm beginning to think so. But until Gold begins to wrestle directly with her own demons, she - and we - will never find the answers to those 25 questions.