“Mother Jones in Heaven” by Si Kahn at Main Stage West, Sebastopol CA
Reviewed by Suzanne and Greg Angeo
Members, San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle
EXTENDED THROUGH MAY 18TH – SHOWS ARE SELLING OUT FAST
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Photos by Eric Chazankin
A Triumphant, Dazzling “Mother”
There have been some really remarkable shows presented in Sonoma County these last few seasons; one might almost call it a Renaissance, a Golden Age of local theatre. Surely leading the pack is the powerful and eloquent one-woman musical event, Mother Jones in Heaven. In its California premiere at Main Stage West, it’s the newest work of American folk artist, composer and activist Si Kahn. As Artist in Residence, he has had three other musicals produced at MSW and promises more to come. Like Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, he crafts rousing populist anthems to bring attention to the social injustices of our time. Kahn’s songs have been recorded by more than 100 artists and translated into half dozen languages. He’s also a composer, lyricist and book writer for musical theater, with productions staged all over the country including Berkeley Rep and Heritage Music Theatre in Petaluma.
He has struck pure gold with Mother Jones in Heaven. It’s a look back on the life of Mary Harris Jones, a ferocious Irish-American labor leader and community organizer that workers affectionately called “Mother Jones”. In the early 1870s, after her four little children and her foundry-worker husband all died in a yellow fever epidemic, she lost a family but gained a cause – fighting for workers’ rights – and became an iconic figure in the social justice movement. Over many decades she gave wisdom and encouragement to hundreds of thousands of workers nationwide, and helped form a number of labor unions. Looking more like an innocent grandmotherly type, in 1902 at age 65 she became known as “the most dangerous woman in America”. In Heaven, Mother reveals the moving story of her life to a quartet of musicians, a “Heavenly Band of Angels”, as they all linger together in a celestial Irish pub. Songs like fiery gems are strung together on a powerful storyline. The effect of the lyrics, melodies and performances by Graham and the band transcend mere words and music. Full of humor, sorrow and rage, the show possesses a fierce beauty, stirring the heart and mind.Hearing Mother’s tale unfold in songs like “Houses on the Hill” and “Tarpaper Shacks”, we realize that times haven’t changed all that much. It’s the same old story of class warfare, as one song explains:
“IF LIVING WAS A THING THAT MONEY COULD BUY
THE RICH WOULD LIVE AND THE POOR WOULD DIE”
— From “The Whisky Ring and the Railroad Trust”, Mother Jones in Heaven
Mary Gannon Graham’s courageous return to the stage as Mother Jones after the devastating loss of her husband and mentor, Thomas, marks a high point not only in her career, but in local live theatre. She reached out “across the river”, found Thomas there still beside her, and with this inspiration was guided to lofty new heights of achievement. Graham possesses an irresistible stage presence in full command of her character, her gorgeous voice soaring above the clouds in jubilation, sliding down to the depths in dark despair. Each song, each stage of Mother’s life, is expressed with a full rainbow of emotion that makes the experience intensely personal and real. After recent knockout performances in Souvenir at 6th Street Playhouse and Shirley Valentine and Always, Patsy Kline at Cinnabar Theater, she is widely considered to be one of the most outstanding talents in the Bay Area. Her tour-de-force turn as Mother Jones is another brilliant feather in her cap. The thunderous, five-minute standing ovation at the end of a recent show is testament to this.
Director Elizabeth Craven brings her sensitive imagination and warmth to this remarkable show, drawing life and movement from a script that has very little stage direction on its pages. Equal credit must be given to musical director Jim Peterson, who took Kahn’s original score, written for a solo piano, and collaborated with the other three members of the Heavenly Band folk ensemble in arranging their own parts: guitar and drum (Peterson); bass (Tim Sarter); fiddle (Rebecca Richman); harp, penny whistle and accordion (Roxanne Oliva). The cozy set by resident scenic designer David Lear, perfectly angelic lighting by John Connole and a blue firmament backdrop by Millie Boice give the finishing touches that make this production beyond special.
Somewhere up in heaven, Mother Jones is smiling.
When: Now through May 11, 2014
8:00 p.m Thursdays, Fridays & Saturdays
5:00 p.m. Sundays
Tickets $15 to $25 (Thursdays are pay what you will)
Main Stage West
104 North Main Street
Sebastopol, CA 95472