Review: Nancy Redman’s "A Séance with Mom" Conjures Mother-Daughter Hilarity and Love
A Séance with Mom
Written by Nancy Redman
Directed by Austin Pendleton
Presented at Chain Studio Theatre
312 W. 36th St., Manhattan, NYC
April 20-23, 2023 [Update 5/1/23: shows added May 24-June 4, 2023 (no performance May 29)]
The heart of the show comprises Nadine’s mission to reach her mother through a séance in order to talk. An unwitting rabbi plays the bumbling gatekeeper to the spirits in the séance, while Nadine’s something—actually several somethings—to tell her mother provides great pacing for the show, creating great curiosity as the plot unfolds.
Lest we think the show is all serious dramatic content, be assured: Redman’s comedy surprises and delights throughout. The rabbi is incompetent at summoning the right mom to the séance and welcomes several Gussy Plotnicks to Nadine’s home before finally settling on the correct one. He brings a Gussy who offers to clean Nadine’s apartment—cueing Nadine to exclaim that this is definitely not the right mom! But before that mom leaves, Nadine does ask, “Can you still clean my apartment?” The rabbi tries again—and then Nadine simply yells “Ma!”—her comic desperation palpable.
“How are you?” Nadine asks her mother when the right Gussy finally appears.
“How is death?”
It turns out that Nadine’s mother is as busy with doctors after death as she was before.
Nadine interrupts her mother’s continuous chatter about the doctors she’s recently seen: “Mom. Do you see me? Do you see how I am? Do you see I use a walker on the street?”
The mom’s reaction? “I see you’re ok.”
Such downplaying of pain proves to be a theme as the mom even says to Nadine later, “To be frank, I don’t want to hear anything bad.”
Mother and daughter navigate difficult emotional terrain—with all of the familiarity, love, and avoidance of any good mother-daughter relationship. Nadine’s séance peels back old wounds, and unexpected change does forge its way into this relationship—even though Nadine’s mother is dead. Redman’s gift to us is to show how we can continue these relationships with the dead.
Grounding the conversation between Nadine and her mother is a strong sense of the family that has come before—the poignant tales of relatives and their quotidian and epic struggles that have led to the current generation. And it is there, seeing Nadine and Gussy’s story contextualized against the backdrop of family stories, values, and advice, that the audience finds a larger understanding of the complexity that all families hold.
One device Redman uses to transition between spirits comes across as weak. Perhaps it is intentionally weak, to convey the slapstick nature of holding this séance at all. But it is a tribute to Redman’s emotional depth conjured onstage that her use of a verbal “poof” and hand gestures to show the exit of spirits feels a bit too small and takes us out of the scene. Use of lights or recorded sound to signal a spirit entering or leaving might better keep the continuity of the atmosphere.
Redman’s plot resists easy comfort. Even when we think we have accepted the premise of Nadine’s séance with her mother, we see how the show brings up questions of who summoned whom. Yes, Nadine needed to speak to her mother. But did her mother set this séance up, still mothering from beyond the grave? As Gussy says to Nadine, “I could tell you needed an intervention.” And in that, we can feel the warmth of family watching and tending, even beyond our own understanding.