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A CurtainUp Review
The Silver Cord

"I offer David a clear field ahead and a complete love to sustain him, a mother's love, until a real marriage, a suitable marriage may be possible for him. And I do not deny that I would cut off my right hand and burn the sight out of my eyes to rid my son of you." Mrs. Phelps to Christina
The Silver Cord
Caroline Kaplan and Wilson Bridges
Photo: Carol Rosegg

Mommie Dearest has nothing on Mrs. Phelps in Sidney Howard's 1926 play The Silver Cord. Far from a stereotypical cartoon, this mother is pathologically possessive, taking mother love for her two sons dangerously over-the-top.

While playwright Howard ( They Knew What They Wanted ) called The Silver Cord a comedy, the humor is incisively dark, revealing 1920's society's fascination with Freud. You have to laugh at some of this anti-heroine's more excessive dictums ("The Chinese never set any relationship above their filial piety. They'd be the greatest people on earth if only they'd stop smoking opium"). However, even in today's R-rating era, there is a jolt of shock when the young wife enters her husband's bedroom and sees his mother sitting next to her "big boy" in bed, kissing him full on the mouth.

The Peccadillo Theater Company's vibrant presentation of this rarely play is currently in a limited run at St Clement's Church. Directed by Peccadillo's Artistic Director, Dan Wackerman, the story takes place in an undefined eastern American city. Beginning on a late February afternoon through the next morning, it centers on the family home of Mrs. Phelps, a widow played in drag by Dale Carman, and her two sons, David and Robert.

David, the older who is his mother's favorite, has been studying architecture in Europe. He is bringing his bride, Christina, an ambitious biologist, to their new jobs in New York, stopping on the way to introduce Christina to his mother. Robert, the younger, weaker son still lives at home with mother, fussing with flower arrangements and unsure of any future plans. His 20-year-old fiancée, Hester lives with them.

The morning after that afternoon opening both young women and one son have left the Phelps house for good. Mrs. Phelps has damaged them all, convincing the sons that the cord tying mother and son "is the strongest bond on earth." She has now persuades Robert to break off his engagement to Hester (Caroline Kaplan) who's heretofore been satisfied to let Robert make decisions about their lives. However, his mother's control and her attempts to fight back have inevitably led to disappointment and hysteria. Now, with the engagement called off, she is distraught and flees desperately out into the freezing night.

Not satisfied to break up Robert and Hester, Mrs. Phelps is also out to destroy David and Christina's marriage. Having been well-conditioned by his mother's deadly influence, David is not ready to completely sever their relationship as his young wife demands. Played with cool assurance by Victoria Mack, Christina proves to be the center of discernment in the house, her decisive authority occasionally throwing the mother off-balance.

Astounded by the power Mrs. Phelps' holds over her sons, Christina stands her ground, recognizing the older woman's destructive need to keep her sons as close substitutes for her own empty life. Drawing on her education and independence, the furious Christina wages a venomously brutal battle for her husband which turns out to be the high point of this drama. You'll have to wait until the end to find out whether she succeeds.

Wilson Bridges brings out the immaturity and insecurity in younger son, Robert and Thomas Matthew Kelley portrays a stronger David, torn by love for both his wife and for his mother. In fact, you have to wonder why Mrs. Phelps even let David go off to Europe.

Dale Carman is restrained and understated in the drag role of the single-minded mother. His Mrs. Phelps demonstrates that not much can rattle her, although when a hysterhiical Hester tries to telephone for a taxi, Carman allows Mrs. Phelps both lose her cool and turn vicious. She yanks the phone cord from the wall warning Hester, "You are the only person in the world who has ever forced me to do an undignified thing. I shall not forget it."

OBIE Award winner, Dan Ackerman, keeps a snappy pace, adding a glockenspiel's melodramatic underscore. Kudos also to the efficient staging. Harry Feiner designed a combination table/Murphy bed behind a sofa. After the first living room scene In Act II, the sofa rotates to reveal a table top, which opens into a bed. Admittedly, the bed is a little too short for the tall David but with Feiner's lighting, the living room is now a serviceable bedroom. In the next scene the bed folds back into the table and rotates again to reveal the over-stuffed, well-draped 1920's living room. Costumes by Gail Cooper-Hecht are period perfect.

In the 1926-27 season, The Silver Cord ran for 232 performances. In 1933 it became a successful film. Sidney Howard's writing skill and sharp dialogue is evident. He won a posthumous Academy Award in 1940 for his screenplay of Gone with the Wind. In 1956, his 1925 Pulitzer Prize winning They Knew What They Wanted became a hit Broadway musical, The Most Happy Fella .

The Silver Cord
Book by Sidney Howard
Directed by Dan Wackerman

Cast: Wilson Bridges, Dale Carman, Caroline Kaplan, Thomas Matthew Kelley, Victoria Mack
Scenic and Lighting Design: Harry Feiner
Costume Design: Gail Cooper-Hecht
Sound Design: Rac Jong Park
Wig and Hair Design: Gerard James Kelly
Running Time: Two hours and 20 min.
Theatre at St. Clement's, 423 West 46th Street
Production: Peccadillo Theater Co.
Tickets: $55. Tickets are available through or by calling OvationTix at 212-352-3101
Performances: Wed. at 7pm; Thurs. and Fri., at 8pm; Sat. at 2pm and 8pm; Sunday at 3pm.
Previews: 06/05/13; Opens: 06/11/13. Closes: 7/14/13
Review by Elizabeth Ahlfors based on performance 06/09/13

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