Thursday, August 23, 2012
Ellen Snortland describes her one-woman show as less Mommy Dearest than “Dear Mommy.” It’s a fair evaluation. Her 2008 Pulitzer Prize-nominated play Now That She’s Gone is a memoir that doubles as a chronicle of a difficult and exasperating relationship with which many adults can relate.
Snortland’s mother, an unemotional and unresponsive Norwegian woman born in 1915, was an enigma. She wasn’t cruel or abusive, but she didn’t hug or smile or laugh, a monotone mode that seems to have left Snortland with a void that couldn’t be filled, early on, by “sex, drugs, rock and roll,” or later, by a super-outgoing personality and stellar career.
“I would do anything to get her to react,” Snortland says. “My mom never complimented me on anything. I was the first woman in my family to star in a TV series, publish a book, get a law degree. And nothing impressed her.”
In the play, which opens with her addressing the audience directly, she reveals the relationship between her mother’s reticence and her own performance aspirations: “I will win Mommy with my performance! She can’t treat me like I don’t exist if I can do a number!”
The little girl within is desperately everpresent. She plays violin, does handsprings and splits, to no effect. In the play, playing her third-grade self, she lashes out: “You’re not human! I hate you! I love you! How come you don’t love me? What’s wrong with you?”
Even as an adult, the starvation for emotion plagued Snortland.
“When I’d call home and I had just got a TV series, she was like, ‘We had sausage for supper.’ OK. I just landed a series in Hollywood – that’s statistically impossible – and she’s talking supper.”
In 2003, even as her mother lay in a hospital bed dying at age 87, Snortland was still trying to draw warmth. But a revelation, a saving grace, would come later. It’s a central turning point in her regard for her mother in the play, which Snortland describes as not a “mother-hating” work, but a funny, sad and irreverent “love letter” to her departed parent, one who left her with an abiding progressive-activist consciousness. (Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights figure into the multi-media work, while Snortland has been a Pasadena Weekly columnist for decades.)
“It’s really, really satisfying because I’ve worked through my demons enough that I can access this without it killing me,” she says.
She performed the play at the New York Fringe Festival and the Edinburgh Fringe Festival every day for a month. It’s scored by her six-time Grammy-winning husband Ken Gruberman and has earned accolades from Gloria Steinem, her friend Riane Eisler and Saturday Night Live’s Nora Dunn. The takehome message, Snortland says: “There’s a lot of incomplete stuff with peoples’ parents. Find out what you’re curious about your parents. Once they’re gone, you can’t ask them. Screw up the courage and ask.”
NOW THAT SHE’S GONE is performed 7:30pm Friday-Saturday, 2pm and 7:30pm Sunday, at Carl Cherry Center, Fourth and Guadalupe, Carmel. $20. 624-7491, www.CarlCherryCenter.org