By Ruth Ross
When Jack Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald in the basement hallway of the Dallas Police and Courts Building, 53 years ago next month, he deprived Americans—and the world—of an answer as to what motivated the scrawny young Texan to pull the trigger of his rifle in the Texas Book Depository and assassinate President John F. Kennedy that sunny November morning, thus giving rise to wild speculation, an entire raft of conspiracy theories and a good deal of armchair psychologizing. (Above, Michael Goldsmith as Lee Harvey Oswald)
Inaugurating Artistic Director David Saint’s 20th anniversary with George Street Playhouse, this polished production of Rob Urbinati’s Mama’s Boy may not answer the question definitively, but the playwright imaginatively fills in the gaps of Oswald’s familial history, specifically his relationships with his mother Marguerite and, later, his wife Marina, in an attempt to delineate and understand what led this young man to commit such a chilling, heinous crime. Eschewing political theory, Urbinati instead focuses on Oswald’s strained relations with his overbearing mother, making her the central character in the drama, further reducing this nonentity to even greater insignificance in a dysfunctional family of nonentities.
Framed by an appearance Marguerite Oswald at New York City’s Town Hall in February 1964, Mama’s Boy is her ostensible attempt to her son’s innocence of the president’s murder and vindicate herself as a doting, loving mother. During the course of the play—told in a flashback—Marguerite proves to be a monstrous, controlling, overbearing parent who, in the guise of making her youngest son feel good about himself, manages to emasculate him. With similar aid from Marina, Oswald devolves from a repatriated defector recently returned from Russia with high hopes of a “clean job” and rosy future, to become disgruntled at his low prospects for attaining the American Dream and flirting with the idea of moving to Cuba to better align his Communist beliefs with the life he hopes to lead. We hear very little about why Oswald lashed out at JFK (although Marguerite says he hated the president because he wanted to kill Castro), but Urbinati provides more than enough evidence that this powerless nobody committed the act to prove his personal worth.
On a revolving set designed by Michael Anania to represent the various apartments where the Oswalds lived, Director Saint moves the action along with whatever tension he can muster since we already know the outcome of the plot. Full of bravado, Michael Goldsmith’s Lee (left, with Aidem) diminishes before our eyes as his wife berates him for not providing for his growing family and his grasping mother tries to keep him her little boy forever. Torn between the two women, he speaks a credible Russian to his wife Marina, attempts to maintain domestic peace and carve out his own life, and descends to a physically abusing Marina when she stands up to him. Most of what appears to drive Lee is pretty surface stuff; minus any political motive, he’s not a very interesting character (as he probably was in real life). While we can sympathize with him regarding his mother’s meddling, the character ultimately remains a cipher, despite Urbinati’s and Goldsmith’s attempts to illuminate his inner life.
As his brother Robert, Miles G. Jackson (right) is a fine representative of a son who managed to escape and achieve success. Estranged from Marguerite by his own choice, he tries valiantly to save his weaker younger brother, but to no avail. In a small role, Jackson shows us what Lee might have become had the gumption to cut the apron strings.
But the two women characters are the heart of the play. Laurel Casillo(right, with Goldsmith) is superb as Lee’s Russian bride Marina, who finds that America is not such wonderful a place to live. Casillo conveys the young woman’s fierce rejection of her stupid mother-in-law’s interference and doesn’t hesitate to let Lee (who calls her, ironically, “Mama”) know that she will be the person he won’t. She’s not above pummeling him when he hits her and pushing his mother in a fit of pique. Best of all, her Russian sounds authentic and convincing. Of all the characters, she is the most worthy of our sympathy.
However, in the role of Marguerite, an extraordinary Betsy Aidem holds our attention every minute she’s onstage—which is most of the time. Talking incessantly in a grating voice with a thick Texan drawl (a scene where she tries to get Marina to repeat “soup” is especially droll), the woman’s domineering manner is made palpable. Aidem’s reaction to the news that Lee’s been shot is especially poignant, for whatever her faults, Marguerite loves her son, albeit in a twisted way. She sees conspiracy everywhere: Lee has been sent to kill JFK because the president is dying anyway; Robert and Marina are plotting against her; Lee is an agent working for the CIA or the FBI. Single-minded and narcissistic, she goes on a crusade to exonerate her boy, a battle that becomes almost laughable in the penultimate scene back at Town Hall where an unseen interviewer (Boyd Gaines) tears her credibility to shreds. Aidem’s Marguerite may not win our sympathy, but she gets points for persistence and grit.
Costumes designed by Michael McDonald are true to the period and help delineate the characters. It is especially telling that the clothing Marguerite “generously” purchases for Marina (from Woolworth’s!) are inappropriate for a young woman; the gesture is still another embodiment of the older woman’s desperate need for control. Michael Clark’s projections enhance Anania’s sets, as does Ken Billington’s lighting.
This New York area premiere of Mama’s Boy comes at an auspicious time. If they were alive today, the Oswalds would be among those living on the economy’s edge, feeling ignored by the government and looked down upon by successful people—prime material to support Donald Trump. Had Lee attended a Trump rally or two, the exhortations to “lock Hillary up,” exercise his2nd Amendment rights to “take her out,” and punch the opposition in the face might have resonated and incited this nobody to take matters into his own hands. As it is, in Mama’s Boy, the denigration of his manhood by his mother, wife, employer, society in general leads him to commit the crime that for many of us was, before 9-11, the defining event of our lives. Dramatically successful, Urbinati’s Mama’s Boy may not offer proof of Lee Harvey Oswald’s motivation, but it does illuminate the psychological forces that may have led him to do it.
Mama’s Boy will be performed at the George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Ave., New Brunswick, through November 6. For performance times and tickets, call the box office at 732.246.7717 or visit www.GSPonline.org.
Photos by T. Charles Erickson.