Bonus Material

Bringing us Closer: A Conversation about 'Mother Play'


May 1, 2024

Hansol Jung

Hansol Jung is a playwright from South Korea. Productions include Wild Goose Dreams (The Public Theater, La Jolla Playhouse), Wolf Play (NNPN Rolling Premiere: Artists Rep, Mixed Blood, Company One), Cardboard Piano (Humana Festival at ATL), Among the Dead (Ma-Yi Theatre), and No More Sad Things (Sideshow, Boise Contemporary). Commissions from The Public Theater, La Jolla Playhouse, Seattle Repertory Theatre, National Theatre in UK, Playwrights Horizons, Artists Repertory Theater, Ma-Yi Theatre and Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Her work has been developed at Royal Court, New York Theatre Workshop, Hedgebrook, Berkeley Repertory, Sundance Theatre Lab, O’Neill Theater Center, and the Lark. Hansol is the recipient of the Hodder Fellowship, Whiting Award, Helen Merrill Award, Page 73 Fellowship, Lark’s Rita Goldberg Fellowship, NYTW’s 2050 Fellowship, MacDowell Artist Residency, and International Playwrights Residency at Royal Court. She is a proud member of the Ma-Yi Writers Lab, NYTW’s Usual Suspects, and The New Class of Kilroys. MFA: Yale.

Lynn Nottage

Lynn Nottage is a playwright and a screenwriter, and the first woman in history to win two Pulitzer Prizes for Drama. Her plays have been produced widely in the United States and throughout the world. Recent work includes the book for MJ the Musical (Broadway), the libretto for the Intimate Apparel Opera (LCT), and Clyde’s (Broadway, 2ST, Goodman Theatre), and co-curating the performance installation The Watering Hole (Signature Theatre). Past work includes Sweat, Ruined, the book for The Secret Life of Bees; Mlima's Tale; By the Way, Meet Vera Stark; Intimate Apparel; Fabulation, or the Re-Education of Undine; Crumbs from the Table of Joy; Las Meninas; Mud, River, Stone; Por’knockers; and POOF!. She has also developed This is Reading, a performance installation in Reading, Pennsylvania. Ms. Nottage is a member of the Theater Hall of Fame, and the recipient of a MacArthur "Genius Grant" Fellowship (among other awards). She is also an Associate Professor at Columbia University School of the Arts and is a member of the Dramatists Guild.

Jen Silverman

Jen Silverman (they/them) is a playwright, novelist, and screenwriter. Plays include Highway Patrol (The Goodman); Spain (Second Stage Theater); Collective Rage: A Play in 5 Betties (Woolly Mammoth, MCC, Southwark Playhouse London); The Moors (Yale Rep, The Playwrights Realm); The Roommate (Williamstown, Actor’s Theatre of Louisville, Steppenwolf, South Coast Rep, etc); and Witch (Writer’s Theatre, The Geffen, The Huntington). Books include the debut novel We Play Ourselves, story collection The Island Dwellers, and novel There’s Going to be Trouble just out from Random House. Silverman wrote The Miranda Obsession as a narrative podcast for Audible, starring Rachel Brosnahan. Silverman is a three-time MacDowell Fellow and a member of New Dramatists. They write for TV and film, including Tales of the City (Netflix) and Tokyo Vice (Max). Honors include fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim. More info at

Spoiler warning: The authors discuss specific scenes in Mother Play, including the play’s finale.

Lynn Nottage: So here we go.

Hansol Jung: Nothing can go wrong.

Jen Silverman: Unless we start gossiping.

HJ: When did everyone see the show? I saw it on a press night.

LN: I saw opening night.

JS: I saw a press matinee the day before it opened.

LN: It was an exuberant opening, really fun, with lots of very positive energy. Both Paula [Vogel, the playwright] and Tina Landau [the director] made beautiful remarks. What really lived with me in that moment was the fact that the show was being put up by all of these women of a certain generation who fought hard to be there, and how in that moment they had arrived.  

I remember being in the trenches and how impossible it seemed to get plays that were written by women onto those Broadway stages, and then once they were there, to have their work well received. There was still bias built into the ways critics reviewed our work. It feels important that we're having these conversations now and that we get to talk about and frame the discussions around our own work without it being filtered through some male critic’s sensibilities.

JS: I’m moved hearing you talk about the passage of time — how long it took Paula and her cohort to get there. When I was watching the play, I was also thinking about time and lineage — how they function inside her body of work. The Baltimore Waltz was such a seminal play for me. I kept thinking about that play and The Long Christmas Ride Home, and these stepping stones that she laid for herself — how each play got her closer to being able to write the next one. Mother Play felt like she was having a deep and rich and vital conversation with her whole body of work, as well as taking another step forward on the path.

LN: It's funny you say that because I was thinking that as well as I was watching the play. This is sort of the apotheosis of all of her work. All of the strands from each play have been woven intricately into this particular piece.

HJ: It felt like she had pared away everything, and was going at the jugular. It was still very playful, and it was still constructed theatrically. The thing that I left the theater with was that it felt so distilled, confidently simple.

And, here's the story: Five evictions, my brother died, and I mourned him with my mother. It's such a distilled story that hits so hard, and it’s such a show of confidence. When I write, everyone tells me I need to take away seven more metaphors, and just keep the fourteen. But I do that because I'm trying to hide all the “stuff.” Paula once said to me (when I was a student) that you have to write to the left of the sun. You can’t stare directly at it. That’s what I understood the metaphor to be. In a way, I felt like she was writing staring right at the sun.

LN: It felt like a very mature, confident piece written by someone who was prepared to reckon with a lot of the trauma of her early childhood. The spine of the play is straightforward, but the way she builds the narrative is quite layered. It is a story about addiction, it's a story about trauma, it's a story about sexual identity. It's also about a woman who's battling depression and self-medicating, and who is ill-equipped to negotiate the complexities of raising children. Paula pulls back the rug, revealing all these fascinating things that are living beneath it, which she then allows us to take a closer look at. I don’t know if she gave us that same permission in some of her earlier work. Mother Play offered an invitation to directly engage.

Celia Keenan-Bolger and Jim Parsons in Mother Play. Photo Credit: Joan Marcus

HJ: Yeah. It just felt it was so honest. Because as soon as the older brother character Carl (Jim Parsons) came on stage and was called Carl, I just went, ‘Oh!’ Because I went in not knowing anything about the play deliberately, and I was like, ‘Oh, oh no.’ It felt like I was watching a ghost through the whole play, because she names [the brother character after her deceased brother], and it was honest. Maybe it's because I know Paula, and because of the way it was set up, conjuring him through a letter [that his sister, Martha (Celia Keenan-Bolger) reads aloud]. There's a sense of wistfulness about his first appearance.

JS: I love what you said about your reaction to Carl. I also went in knowing nothing except the title, and because I had had such a strong relationship with The Baltimore Waltz, when Carl was named, my first reaction was, ‘Oh, I get to spend time with him again.’ I felt like I was going to see an old friend. Then I realized, ‘I'm going to get my heart broken.’

HJ: Yeah. Because I know what's going to happen. The journey of watching that embodied so much joy, which was lovely, and also wistful because I was watching a little bit of ghost play.

LN: One of the things that I welcomed about the play is just how brilliantly [Vogel] used humor to puncture harsh, brutal reality. If there wasn't the humor there, it might have been almost unbearable to witness the way the characters unravel. However, I felt like I was in assured hands, even though what I was experiencing were these very difficult truths, like Phyllis’ painful rejection of her children’s sexual identities.

Without the humor, I wonder whether I would have felt the same level of intimacy and proximity to the characters that I experienced while watching the show. The humor disarmed me, and was an invitation to engage on multiple levels. It was a taut, short play, and yet I felt like I had lived in their lives for a very long time, in a great way. And it's so true about Carl, it's like, ‘Oh, we get to have another conversation with him from a different angle.’

JS: I love the scene at the disco. It's funny, it's sweet, but it has such a knife inside it. After Carl comes out, Phyllis rejects him and there’s a period of estrangement. But then she starts softening — Martha even gets her to go to a PFLAG meeting — and we land at this scene where they take her to a gay disco. They have this joyful reunion of sorts, they’re dancing, they’re laughing, they’re embracing… and then Phyllis sees Martha kissing a girl. And it turns out that Phyllis can’t accept that Martha is gay, even though we have been watching her start to metabolize the same truth about her son. With Carl, she is able to revert to the easy, humorous dynamic that they have together. But she and her daughter don't have an easy dynamic, so there's nothing to fall back on when she’s upset.

LN: Yes! Do you think that Martha intended for Phyllis to physically see her having an intimate moment with another woman? I wasn't sure. Was this intentional? Was this in her way of coming out in a safe space and setting the parameters for how she was going to tell her mother she was queer?

JS: I had assumed that it was an accident. Yet, as you say that… Martha is so prepared to stand up for herself and to say, ‘Mom, if you walk away from me, I will not come walking after you.’ She doesn’t backpedal, she’s armored in a way that if it was pure accident, perhaps she wouldn't have been.

LN: It was such a beautiful moment. I read it as Martha inviting Phyllis into her world and Carl's world and saying, ‘Look, this is so much fun. It's so beautiful. There's so much joy. What do you see that's wrong with this?’

HJ: I'm still dealing with my parents and all of that stuff. I was immediately like, ‘Oh, this is a staging.’ Because I mean it’s also dramaturgically very smart to trick us.

LN: That's what I thought.

HJ: The writing that comes afterward was her defense of herself and the ultimatum feels very prepared.

Celia Keenan-Bolger and Jessica Lange in Mother Play. Photo Credit: Joan Marcus.

JS: What's heartbreaking about it is that the two and a half, three scenes before the disco you're watching Mom get closer and closer to — I don't want to say understanding and acceptance — but she comes in with this generational idea that having a gay son means you did something wrong, and we’re watching her realize that maybe this isn’t true. I believed that she was moving her way through a set of thorny fears and prejudices towards being able to meet her children on the other side. And if her daughter is also nurturing that belief, only to have it shattered? If Martha staged that encounter because she’s also seeing Phyllis change, only to find that Mom can get there for her son, but not for her daughter…?

HJ: There's a lot of setting up hope through humor, then having it completely shattered. When Mom takes Carl in, I'm like, okay, it's going to be a healing, this is the moment, then nope! She delivers the worst monologue a mother can say to their children. It’s just building you up high to fall.

LN: It also speaks to the cleverness of the architecture of the play, the five evictions. You have people who are constantly being thrust out of space but have the same furniture that they're rearranging over and over again. Just to your point, [even though Phyllis] moves a lot, she is the most unmovable of the characters. You think each time the furniture is moved, that somehow she's going to move with it, and yet she resists? This was the brilliance of the scene where we see her alone negotiating that space without anyone else there. It spoke to her stasis that no matter what she does, she's going to retreat back into that battle, retreat back into her loneliness.

Editor’s note: Here, our contributors begin talking about “the scene” in Mother Play. Vogel calls it “The Phyllis Ballet.” In it, the mother character Phyllis gets ready for bed one night after kicking both of her children out of the home. Phyllis says no words — she, in fact, has no one to talk to — and we watch her stare at an unseen television, half-heartedly pour a drink and warm up a TV dinner, attempt a dance, etc. She is terrifyingly alone.

HJ: I don't know what if it was just what I was going through in my personal life, but I wept through that whole scene. It was so weird. There was no dialogue, no text. Also, she was amazing in that whole [moment] in bed, but the way it built up, and then there was a big textural, cathartic moment, a recognition, a conflict!  Going into that was just like, “Oh my God.”

LN: The scene was so poignant because I had a parent who battled with alcoholism, and one of the things that he would do was sit by himself with the television tray. It took me right back to those moments in which he'd spend the entire evening drinking, and yet struggling to hide it. Then at the end of a binge, you'd have to pick him up, either in the morning or sometime after midnight. [Vogel] captured that so perfectly. What it's like to be that individual, alone, battling their demons once everyone's left.

JS: It makes me think about your word ‘immovable’ again. Even after everyone has left, even in that stripped-away space, there were so many moments where Phyllis tried to perform for herself — where her immovability meant that she couldn't surrender to her loneliness. She couldn't be honest with herself, she had to continue performing: ‘I have it together. I have it together. Maybe I'm not eating this TV meal, but I'm going to raise and lower my fork.’

LN: I think you're so right. That moment is about her trying to perform some form of happiness.

HJ: For herself, yes.

Jessica Lange in Mother Play. Photo Credit: Joan Marcus

JS: Lynn, you took that one step further. I didn't even get to the thought of happiness. But you’re right! Inside that immovable performance is this idea that when you manifest a certain kind of femininity and a certain kind of class background — whether or not you have it any longer — that it will lead to happiness. When I think about the play from Phyllis’ perspective, she's trying desperately to do everything in the correct order to lead to happiness. Anything that doesn't fit into that order like her son being gay, her daughter pursuing an education instead of a marriage, her daughter being gay — all of these things that don't fit have to be ignored at all costs to achieve happiness. And then it's so bewildering to her when she isn’t happy.

LN: It's true. It's so true.

HJ: But it's funny, I just bring it up because when she brought the [crystal] ball?

LN: You know what's interesting about the crystal ball is that I remember from childhood there was a period when people had crystal balls. It was trendy.

JS: Would you just sort of casually read them?

LN: I was too young to know what people did with it, but it was an object of interest. I was curious about how that read because for a [certain] generation it would be less strange. Crystal balls appeared as decorative elements in houses.

HJ: I wonder if it was meant to be strange or to recall that cultural moment.

JS: It felt to me like Phyllis has gotten so lonely and frustrated that she’s trying to open doors for herself into a new kind of life, and yet they aren’t opening in ways that satisfy her. Opening a door to the occult. Or later when she says to Carl, toward the end of the play: ‘I'll take care of you. I will be the perfect mother.’ She’s opening a door. But then she can't live in the room that exists beyond that door.

There's something in Mother Play that I'm not putting my finger on just yet but it has to do with the architecture of the play, physical and emotional. How Phyllis and Martha and Carl are all trying to reinvent themselves in various ways, and that involves opening new doors into lives inside which they hope they can flourish. But the play just keeps evicting them all.

LN: Yes, they keep getting pushed out of spaces. Each time they think that they've settled, they find reasons that force them out.

HJ: It’s funny, you don't ever see the space they get pushed out of life from. Because when I saw the title ‘Five Evictions,’ I assumed the fifth one was going to be death. And no it wasn't. And you don't see the space that they finally land in, but it’s a home.

LN: In some ways, it begins with Martha unpacking the small box with all of the elements of her brother's life inside. The final space where she arrives is a mental space, where she has the ability to open that box, confront what’s left inside and finally read her brother’s letter. Martha is opposite of her mother in the play, she is a nurturer. The place where Martha arrives is beautiful: it ends with her mothering her mother and recognizing that that's who she's become.

HJ: Each character ends in more emotionally painted space than a proper set. After Carl passes and reappears as a memory, he's just sitting on that same furniture as before. He's being conjured into the space that they were in.

JS: I kept asking myself if we were watching a story that was ultimately about forgiveness, or if we were watching a story about a daughter learning how to love her mother without forgiving her. I think in so many classical narratives we’re told that forgiveness is required in order to love someone. But Mother Play is more complicated and thorny. You can love someone without trusting them. You can love someone without forgiving them.

LN: I don't know that it was about forgiveness. By the end, Martha could see her mother in her totality and could still love her and care for her. But, I wonder whether forgiveness was one of the ingredients there.

JS: Maybe Martha was able to show up for her mother and love and care for her because she didn’t have to forgive her. I felt like across the arc of the play I was watching Martha learn to divorce love from forgiveness.

LN: Right.

JS: And once she does that, Martha can show up for Phyllis. And in the final scene between the two women, we witness an act of love.

LN: A very complicated act of love. By the end of the play, Martha had enough critical distance which permitted her to interact with her mother differently. ‘If I separate myself from my emotions and see this woman who has been through tremendous trauma, a woman who was in an abusive relationship, a woman who had parents that were very religious and judgmental, then I will be able, at the very end, to take care of her. But, as long as she has access to my heart, I am not going to be capable of caring for her.’ That is like the nugget that I took away. She had to finally say, ‘No, I'm not Martha. I’m not that person you desire me to be, but I’m here to take care of you nevertheless.’

HJ: I have a very complicated relationship with the word forgiveness. To talk about it you have to find a squishy place, right? You have to find grace and mercy. For the characters, it's navigating being so rigid and hard and then finding your way back to each other. That’s the dynamic the play moves through over and over. It played into how the humor worked. It felt like their love for each other was based on humor: Martha’s very wry, dry, and self-deprecating humor that you can laugh at but feel bad about, the performance that Carl’s always putting on makes you just want him to exist and live, and Phyllis is such a presence — she walks into the room, you look at nothing else — and the catty, bitchy humor of the way she frames things. That’s what they love about each other.

JS: Yes! Humor is such a vivid language also. Even between Phyllis and us, the audience. I love Phyllis from the minute she opens her mouth because she’s hilarious. And then even when she does painful, wounding things, I can’t just write her off.

Jim Parsons and Jessica Lange in Mother Play. Photo Credit: Joan Marcus.

LN: Are there other things we want to talk about?

JS: We started this conversation talking about lineage within Paula's body of work. But the other lineage I was thinking about is how Mother Play speaks to a canonical body of work that came before. O'Neill and Tennessee Williams especially come to mind.

LN: A lot about Tennessee Williams.

JS: This figure of the mother, you know? The immovable mother, around whom a play organizes itself, around whom a family organizes itself, a mother whose fingerprints are indelible decades later. Hansol, when you talked about the clarity and simplicity of Mother Play you made me think about Long Day's Journey Into Night or The Glass Menagerie, or honestly any of Tennessee Williams’ plays. Conversely, those plays are ornate and elaborate and dense. It feels like Paula is participating in a family of plays, but her participation is the sleek, sharp cousin, the cousin made of bones.

LN: It's funny you say that because I was thinking so much about Long Day's Journey Into Night. I’d also seen Jessica Lange in that, so I thought about these two characters in conversation. The Glass Menagerie toothe difference is that those plays are so embellished, and often a woman gets buried in the ornamentation. Paula stripped that away and showed us: Mother, in such a raw and honest way. In The Glass Menagerie, there are things that I simply didn't understand about Mother.

HJ: In The Glass Menagerie, she's quite villainized. It's really hard to get to the human of her. I feel like Williams wrote it to figure out a way to distance himself. It's more of a love letter to Laura [the daughter character]. And in Mother Play it wasn't an effort to distance. It was an effort to bring us closer.

LN: When you're thinking about Long Day's Journey… and The Glass Menagerie, the playwrights of that time may not have had the language or the vocabulary necessary to deal with their emotional baggage. I don't know that O’Neil would have made the connection between his trauma and his mother's addiction. I wonder whether Mother Play is a reflection of a playwright in a different time with many more tools at hand. It’s also a reflection of the fact that a woman is writing about a woman — she's writing in a much more empathetic, connected and personal way.

HJ: Yeah. Different time, different gender, but also different lived experience. If you write about the same thing when you're 25 and then 75, what has accumulated that turns your perspective or does it not?

JS: Right. Williams — at least in the plays I'm thinking of — wrote them when he was so much younger than Paula Vogel. He's so angry. He's so hurt. He's caught in those feelings. It feels like in Mother Play, the voice of the play is not a wound. There's a quieter, calmer, steelier style here: ‘We can go here, we're okay.’

LN: It's true. In all those other plays, there's a sense of the playwright punishing a cruel character in ways that they perhaps could not do in life. But you don't get a sense that that's the case in this particular play. It feels that Phyllis' journey is — as hateful as she can be at some points –— founded with some love, some care that's being taken.

JS: Yes. And the play can afford to invite the audience to love her as well.

LN:. And to understand her, even if they don't understand [her actions].

HJ: It's that silent scene. It's so generous. It says ‘Just watch her. I won't even interfere with words. Just watch her.’ Vogel lets the audience have a relationship with Phyllis’ solitude, her loneliness. There's so much space to wonder about motivation and to feel empathy for the life that she has. And it’s BALLSY.

LN: Looking at the play structurally, I thought that Paula did such a good job of earning that moment. That we, as an audience, were prepared to sit with her as long as we needed to.

HS: Or wanted to! I mean, I feel like I wanted it. I didn't know I needed, wanted to, and I could probably have gone on for much longer. This is probably a combination of the architecture of the play and the brilliance of the performance, but all in all, just in terms of how children write about their parents, it was very generous.

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