Solo show balances storyline, music — and a tribute to mom

[Woody’s Rating: ★★★★☆

Wayne Harris pays tribute to his mom in “Mother’s Milk” at The Marsh Berkeley. Photo by Dianne Woods.

I caught it, appropriately, two nights before Mother’s Day.

But it’s good any day you want to remember affirmative things about yourmom.

“Mother’s Milk” professes to be “a blues and gospel play in 3 acts [that underscores] an intricate and uplifting narrative on life, death and the Baptist Church (not to mention the best recipe ever for banana pudding).”

It’s all that.

But the one-man show with accompaniment also — as publicity blusterers typically bluster — is much, much more.

The play also hones in on the civil rights movement (including African-American writer-performer Wayne Harris’ idolizing the Black Panthers and, as a result, donning beret, shades and a cool black jacket); his mother Ruth losing her breast cancer struggle (he worships her for being like “a warm blanket”); and his indecisive boyhood trip up a church aisle to accept Jesus as his savior.

But he also imitates his crazy sister, whom he says got “lost in a religious psychosis,” and his often drunk stepfather, aka Uncle Bill (whom he hated because the guy yelled at, insulted and threatened him and his four siblings), from whom he fled by joining a drum and bugle corps.

Despite describing his home life as “quiet and dark all the time,” Harris smiles while recounting the varied obstacles he had to hurdle (rather than wallowing in the uncomfortable, like being a pallbearer).

That stance makes his performance easy for me to handle.

He glosses over having had polio at age four, marrying a white Canadian girl, and moving to San Francisco — and merely touches on his shatterproof faith coupled with a healthy disdain for all organized religions.

Music is a constant.

And comes off as an equal partner with the storyline and its flashbacks, unlike most solo shows where it stays rigidly in the background.

Harris’ smooth blues style, even when offering up bouncy, funky, toe-tapping riffs, is coupled with arrangements and original tunes by pianist Randy Craig, who’s worked with the Pickle Family Circus (which he co-founded), and bassist John McArdle, who’s performed with the likes of Lesley Gore, Lou Rawls, Liberace and Pharaoh Sanders.

But the focus and main spotlight remain on Harris, whose monologue is mostly tender and gentle — an acute contrast to so many of today’s popular monologists who lean toward edgy.

And he basks in it while adding upbeat moments on baritone bugle and tambourine, and working hard enough to require repeatedly wiping the sweat from his brow and face with a Louis Armstrong-like white hankie.

Harris, who previously starred in five full-length solo plays and has been on The Marsh staff since 1996 (he now heads its youth theater program), had a successful 2012 run with “Mother’s Milk” at the San Francisco Fringe Festival and then debuted at The Marsh in San Francisco in 2015.

The show, by the way, is skillfully directed by David Ford, who’s collaborated with Geoff Hoyle, Brian Copeland, Charlie Varon and Marga Gomez.

When all’s said and done, Harris, whose performance is salted with good-natured humor, is unusually likable in retelling his coming-of-age tale, and proves that you cango home again — mentally and emotionally, at least.

As I sat through the 75-minute sold-out show, I found his recollections — and his delivery — soft and sweet, a rarity in theatrical circles these days.

A totally amiable experience, ergo.

And refreshing indeed.

“Mother’s Milk” plays at The Marsh Berkeley, 2120 Allston Way, through May 31. Night performances, 8 p.m. Fridays; matinees, 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets: $20 to $100. Information: (415) 282-3055 or www.themarsh.org.

Contact Woody Weingarten at www.vitalitypress.com/or voodee@sbcglobal.net.

About the Author

Woody WeingartenWoody Weingarten, who can be reached at www.vitalitypress.com/ or voodee@sbcglobal.net, can’t remember when he couldn’t talk — or play with words. His first poem was published in high school but when his hormones announced the arrival of adulthood, he figured he’d rather eat than rhyme. So he switched to journalism. And whadda ya know, the bearded, bespectacled fella has used big, small and hyphenated words professionally since jumpstarting his career in New Yawk City more than 60 years ago. Today the author of the book “Rollercoaster: How a man can survive his partner’s breast cancer” is also a reviewer-critic, blogger and publisher — despite allegedly being retired. During his better-paid years as a wage slave he was an executive editor and writer for daily and weekly publications in California, Florida, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New York. He won writing awards for public service and investigation, features, columns, editorials and news. Woody also has published weekly and monthly newspapers, and written a national column for “Audio” magazine. A graduate of Colgate University, he owned a public relations/ad agency and managed an advertising publication. The father of two and grandfather of three, he and his wife, Nancy Fox, have lived in San Anselmo in Marin County for three decades. He figures they'll stay.View all posts by Woody Weingarten →