Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, October, 1998
Its a wonderful title, isn’t it? “Trapped in the Car with Mom” is a new musical-in-progress currently being presented by Barrington Stage in the Clock Tower Building in Pittsfield. The show was presented in staged readings at Barrington Stage’s summer home in Sheffield this past summer, and this is its first full staging.
The premise, of course, is that a mother and her 24 year old daughter are trapped together in the car which has run out of gas on a lonely back road in a torrential rainstorm. During the hours they huddle together waiting for help to arrive, they rehash their entire relationship and how it has affected their lives.
Being both a mother and a daughter I was excited to see this show. In American musical theatre motherhood is too often depicted at its worst – think of Mama Rose in “Gypsy” – and I looked forward to seeing what the real-life mother/daughter team of Mary Bracken Phillips and Hallie Bulleit would come up with. Bracken Phillips, a professional actress and Tony nominated playwright, wrote the book and lyrics and portrays herself in the show. Bulleit, a struggling young actress in real life, also portrays herself and obviously had a great deal of input into the book and lyrics. Veteran actress Chase Crosley of Copake, NY, portrays Bracken Phillips’ mother in the show.
Now, I want you all to bear in mind, as I am, that this is a work in progress. The show I saw may be very different from the show you see because changes are being made daily as the show develops and tests what works and what doesn’t. Therefore, I am not going to dwell on specifics, because those are the things most likely to change, but to look at the show as a whole.
And as a whole work I found it too personal, too autobiographical. While I am interested in the relationship between mothers and daughters, I am not as interested in the relationship between this particular mother and daughter. If the entire plot of the show is true, then Bracken Phillips and Bulleit have had a long, hard road to hoe thus far. A son/brother lost to SIDS, a husband/father killed in an automobile accident, and demoralizing financial hardships inflicted by unfeeling relatives. To hear of how they coped with just one of those situations would be a show in itself. To deal with them all plus other lighter matters in two hours is an awful lot.
I was also disappointed with how small a role Crosley was given as Bracken Phillips’ mother, a character who isn’t even given the dignity of a name. If the point of the show was to explore the relationships between mother and daughters in general, rather than in specific, the oldest generation would have be given more of a voice. I often think that we trivialize what our fore-mothers went through – particularly the generation of women who raised us baby boomers between 1945 and 1965.
Composer Jennifer Giering also plays the piano for the production, and I was disappointed she didn’t get to come out from behind the scenes for a bow. Her music is interesting and effect most of the time (this is a work in progress, remember?) I enjoyed her use of repeating themes as the show went on. Bracken Phillips and Bulleit sang her songs well, unmiked. Crosley, who is not a singer, did a good job with her musical moments, including an hilarious sing-speak number (think Rex Harrison in “My Fair Lady”) as she drives a young Bracken Phillips on a high school date.
Barrington Stage founder Julianne Boyd has directed the show well. I know what a challenge it is for performers to go on with a slightly different show every night, but I was blissfully unaware of where the seams were. Paul Milton and Mike Riggs have done a professional job with the set and lighting. Overall, Barrington Stage has done a great job of turning a large, empty space in an old mill building into a workable and intimate theatre. It gives one hope for what can be done at Mass MoCA.
“Trapped in the Car with Mom” runs through October 25 in the Berkshire Eagle Clock Tower Building at 175 South Church Street in Pittsfield. Call Barrington Stage Company at 413-528-8888 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 1998