Theatre Review: ‘Knead’ at Alliance Theatre

Mary Lynn Owen in Knead at the Alliance Theatre (Photos by Greg Mooney)

The Alliance Theatre is currently running Mary Lynn Owen’s one-woman play called “Knead,” directed by David de Vries, at the Hertz Stage through Dec. 9.

Ms. Owen, a veteran Atlanta actor, not only wrote the autobiographical play (her first); she is its sole performer. Like most plays and films, the piece took several years to come to fruition. But it received the Alliance’s Reiser Artists Lab Award (propelling it toward performance) and was a semifinalist for the 2017 O’Neill National Playwright’s Conference. This is pretty heady stuff for a first play.

When I say autobiographical, I don’t mean the work is about only Ms. Owen; it’s really a beautiful homage to her mother, and the playwright’s relationship to her. It also concerns her family.

Psychologists tell us that the bond between a mother and her child is unlike any other on this earth. I have long believed this, and “Knead” is yet another demonstration of this rather obvious truth.

Ms. Owen ‘s mother was Cuban-American, the daughter of Cuban immigrants. Her father was a Southerner, a Methodist preacher from Snellville. The couple had several children; Ms. Owen was the oldest. By the way, the character “Mary Lynn Owen” is played by “Herself”; so says the program. So if I refer to Mary Lynn, it’s the character, not the performer.

I would like to quote Alliance Artistic Director Susan V. Booth, who said in a note in the program: “And at the moment I write this, I am so deeply aware of the need we have to listen to one another and be compassionate audiences for one another.” I read this just before the play began, and as Mary Lynn’s moving story unfolds, Ms. Booth’s words take on ever-greater resonance as the play continues.

So let’s bake some bread—from scratch, of course—the kind of bread that, when prepared (and kneaded!) properly, tastes like ambrosia from heaven. This is what Mary Lynn is doing much of the play, as she shares thoughts and feelings and personal history with us. By the way, Ms. Owen says that Mary Lynn happens “to share my name and some of the significant events and people in my life…but she has her own journey.”

At this point you may think that “Knead” could be static and one-note and hardly even theatrical. You would be wrong. Picture a woman in her dressing gown in the middle of the night determined to decipher her mother’s few recipe notes and somehow emulate her mother’s creation. For the baking of bread, of course, is a lovely metaphor—not only for her mother’s life, but for all life. In fact, for thousands of years, bread has symbolized just that. But Ms. Owen, with determination, vulnerability, and a palpable sense of time and loved ones lost, works some potent alchemy here. She has the audience in the palm of her hand.

One also gets the impression that Mary Lynn’s mother is a woman of mystery, to an extent, who relishes her secrets. For example, her mother, who is naturally fluent in Spanish, doesn’t speak the language too much around her daughter. So Mary Lynn has, in part learned Spanish as taught in South Georgia high schools. This is an amusing moment; yet she occasionally speaks phrases to us (the audience) in perfectly fluent Spanish.

Speaking of the audience, Mary Lynn occasionally breaks the fourth wall and speaks to the audience. “Hmm—who are you?” she muses; then gets back immediately into her space. This could easily have been overdone, but it’s not. The two-time Suzi Bass Award-winning actor trusts her narrative/theatrical instincts—wisely. And she is funny; there is always a joy in her bubbling just beneath the surface. At this point I can’t see another actress playing this part; but we shall see.

There is heartbreak and death in the play, usually concerning relatives. The piece could very easily have turned morbid, but the playwright is too smart for this. There are—and this is Ms. Owen’s special triumph—a hundred moments of discovery in the play: everything from a bicycle falling out of a refrigerator to an long-awaited epiphany which she shares with us.

To get the most from this play, you must do something quite radical these days: listen. And focus and concentrate. Remember that theatre is a collaborative art form. It can’t occur alone—even in a one person play.

It is only then that Ms. Owen’s Mary Lynn will gently drop pearls of wit and wisdom your way.

It takes a certain amount of chutzpah to perform a one-person play. You’ve got to be pretty darn sure of yourself, possess real talent, and have a fine director. Ms. Owen has been effusive in her praise and gratitude to her director (and longtime friend) David de Vries. Without his inspiration and guidance, “Knead” would not have happened.

But this is Mary Lynn Owen’s moment; I’ve never seen her more radiant and confident onstage. Her mother would be proud. You will have an uplifting experience.

For tickets and information, visit alliancetheatre.org.

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