Anyone of a certain age will remember exactly where they were when they heard that President John F. Kennedy had been shot. For me, it was in a lecture hall about seven blocks from the present George Street Playhouse, where Mama’s Boy is playing through Nov. 6.
Playwright Rob Urbinati’s disturbing account digs deeply into the family dynamics behind the shooter who did the deed. Drawing on interviews and transcripts, he gives us a portrait of the dysfunctional Oswalds during a two-year span from June of 1962 to November of 1964, just after the assassination.
Their story is told in flashback, as Oswald’s single mother, Marguerite (Betsy Aidem), opens with a monologue on why she is certain that her son could never have killed the president. It’s a testament to Ms. Aidem’s acting skill that she creates a thoroughly grating, self-centered woman who makes you cringe. She natters on with self-justifications and crackpot rationalizations.
The story does not delve into the troubled times, or the social milieu. Instead, Mr. Urbinati focuses his gaze on the Oswalds under Marguerite’s over-protective wing. In the first act, a rootless and disillusioned Lee Harvey Oswald (Michael Goldsmith), has just arrived in Fort Worth from Russia. With him are his recent bride Marina (Laurel Casillo) and their four-month-old daughter. It is almost a year and a half before he will aim a rifle from the upper story of the Texas School Book Depository.
Back in the family fold, Lee tries to avoid his mother, turning instead to his brother, Robert (Miles G. Jackson), who has avoided Marguerite. Clearly, both sons have a troubled relationship with Mom, and it’s no wonder. Marguerite is a loud, overbearing, smothering presence. She especially dotes on Lee, who was always her favorite. Wherever he goes, there she is, hovering, butting in, over-helping.
Lee’s restlessness begins to wear on Marina, who is trying to adjust to this new country and raise her baby. Lee gets menial jobs that barely support his family. His drinking and moodiness lead to alarming physical abuse. The scenes shift to various locations in Fort Worth and Dallas. The quick-change set design by Michael Anania cleverly combines interiors on a turntable with room surroundings projected on back panels.
Marina also changes. As she learns more English, she becomes emboldened, going out on the town at night to avoid the depressing domestic scene. Ms. Casillo is remarkable in conveying that transformation from a dependent immigrant to a defiant woman who talks back to her husband and her mother-in-law. Mr. Goldsmith portrays Lee as a man who becomes more and more pathetic as he wallows in self-pity, lashing out in violent bursts.
No one is admirable in this play, not even Robert. Mr. Jackson’s character also undergoes a sea change, as Robert’s empathy for Marina takes a more lustful turn. The characters are all seeking an emotional haven, a secure landing place that will be safe and stable. Marguerite is someone who is grasping to recover the one true love she shared with her first husband, Lee’s deceased father. A flashback to 1959 in the second act reveals the dark side of her loss. This is at the heart of her troubled relationship with Lee, the favored son.
With its relentless slide toward the inevitable, “Mama’s Boy” has the feeling of a Greek tragedy, minus the fallen heroes. There are just the fallen. David Saint, celebrating his 20th year as George Street’s artistic director this season, directed this dynamic family drama. On opening night, Mr. Saint rhapsodized about his George Street experience and explained why he has remained for two decades, despite other offers.
It’s the relationships with other artists, he said, with people who suggest new work. Ms. Aidem, in fact, brought Mr. Urbinati’s play to his attention. The collaborative community in the orbit of New York has nurtured his efforts to make George Street a fertile ground for presenting new work and introducing plays that will go on to wider acclaim. “Mama’s Boy” is an excellent example, a fresh theatrical experience with a superb cast that keeps you on edge throughout.
“Mama’s Boy” continues at George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Ave., New Brunswick, through Nov. 6. For tickets and information, go to georgestreetplayhouse.org or call 732-246-7717.