Leenya Rideout Tackles a Mother-Daughter Relationship With Wild Abandon
This solo performance piece at the Irish Rep mixes music and memory.
Few sons are like their fathers, goes a famous line in Homer's Odyssey. But what about mothers and daughters? Judging from actor-singer-songwriter Leenya Rideout's Wild Abandon, in which she recounts her own odyssey from girlhood to adulthood as well as her strained relationship with her mom, the opposite is true. Now making its world premiere at the Irish Repertory Theatre, this one-woman show written and performed by Rideout ultimately links the invisibility she feels as a daughter to her mother's traumatic upbringing.
Rideout frames her "mostly true" narrative in the present: The audience meets her as she rushes in from the back of the auditorium, apologetically late for her gig at a Long Island pub. Her whole Celtic rock band was supposed to be here, but because of the snow, she's the only one who made it. So she's going to perform her own songs instead.
Her first number introduces us to her mother, Lynn, a passive-aggressive church lady who'll "offer you the shirt from off her back, is what she'll say. / Most likely, she won't die out in the cold in just one day! / And after all, what's life without a grandchild, anyway?" The pressure Lynn puts on her daughter to have kids or at least get married becomes a motif of the show, as it must be in Leenya's life. For Leenya, though, her songs and stage performances (among them Broadway productions of Cabaret and War Horse) are her legacy. But to her mother, these are "little shows," and while she listens to Leenya's music, she wishes her daughter would go back to being a "Sunday school guitar lady."
The concept of Wild Abandon is clear: work through the tension of the past to better understand the present. Leenya does in fact attain some insight near the end, when she finally sees her mother as someone who is herself a daughter — and a troubled one at that. Lynn grew up in the home of an alcoholic child molester and says her own mother had her to be a "shield...but she should have been protecting me!" The problem is that it's not until these final moments that the audience sees Lynn for who she really is.
What fills the intervening time is a jumble of songs and scenes from Leenya's life. Some are poignant, like "La Côte d'Azur," in which a disillusioned Leenya finds comfort floating obliviously with "blue below me and blue above me." Others creak with clichés, as Leenya complains about how "the road is hard and the distance long." Under the meandering direction of Lisa Rothe, the distance feels long for the audience too. Wild Abandon ambles through Leenya's past, re-creating moments from her youth and early adulthood, but the recurring clashes between disapproving mother and do-what-I-want daughter offer little sense of progression.
Deepening the monotony is the approach to characterization. Leenya plays up family resemblance, so hardly more than the long o's of Lynn's voice differentiate mother from daughter. Mike Baldassari's lighting changes help the audience tell them apart, but it's still occasionally unclear who Leenya is speaking as. Only in the music, which she composed, does her versatility as a performer emerge. She sings opera and rock in addition to playing the fiddle, piano, bass, acoustic guitar, electric guitar, bodhrán, and more.
Much of the production is designed around her instrument playing. Narelle Sissons's cluttered woodshed of a set allows Leenya easy access to her equipment, which she takes off the shelves and hooks as needed. Sound designer Brendan Aanes deftly repurposes Leenya's music-making in one moment as background in another, allowing her to move on to an additional instrument or scene.
Slick tricks and musical virtuosity aren't enough for a show built around the baring of souls, though. You get glimpses of Lynn and and Leenya's inner selves but nothing more. Far from a state of wild abandon, you're left feeling, at most, mild interest.