Jill Shackner and Alison Fraser in A Charity Case
(© Kevin Thomas Garcia)
Jill Shackner and Alison Fraser in A Charity Case
(© Kevin Thomas Garcia)
"Who decides what makes a mother?" is the blunt question that adolescent Deidre (Jill Shackner) asks towards the end of Wendy Beckett's well-acted 60-minute piece, A Charity Case, now at the Harold Clurman Theatre at Theatre Row. While the answer that adoptive mother Faith (Alison Fraser, in an unflinching portrayal) quickly supplies is "You do," it's obvious that the response Beckett most wants must come from the audiences.

Indeed, Beckett wants patrons to see the difficulty, maybe even the futility, of making such a judgment. To that end, she has carefully and cagily drawn portraits of two seriously flawed women -- Faith and Harpie (Alysia Reiner) -- so that the work is a delicately calibrated six-of-one-half-dozen-of-the-other argument.

Faith, a dress maker, is a dictatorial, self-absorbed, only slightly fading beauty. As a result of psychological flaws, she sees herself in competition with her daughter to such an extent she even undermines the girl's plans to attend a school dance in the dress she's selected. Worse, Faith is a drinker, whose latest boyfriend, David, beats her up so badly that she arrives home one morning after with a brutal black eye.

On the other hand, Deidre's birth mother -- seen several times in stage limbo wearing costume designer Theresa Squire's layered late-hippie drag -- exists on her own self-proclaimed astral plane. That she regains her senses before play's end doesn't erase the past mistakes and missteps.

With the two women tugging at Deidre, the choice that Beckett prompts audience members to make isn't an easy one. Indeed, if there were a test for motherhood, women like Faith and Harpie would probably both fail miserably. Surely, there are psychologically flawed women in the world who are nonetheless qualified to raise children whom they have adopted, as well as mothers who have given up a child for valid reasons but who after time may be more equipped for parenting their child than the person under whose roof the daughter or son is living. The issue is more complex than Beckett allows in this Case.