Kendra Jones stars in Stephen Sondheim's "Dear Mama" (Kendra Jones)
Jones’ performance is brave and tragic.
—Joff Schmidt, CBC theatre reviewer
Beauty can be a very ugly thing. That's one of the prevailing ideas in Winnipeg writer/performer Kendra Jones' Dear Mama, a new short play premiering as part of SondheimFest.
Dear Mama is inspired in part by Gypsy, the musical about burlesque performer Gypsy Rose Lee, for which Sondheim wrote the lyrics. It's also inspired by some more contemporary sources - those grotesque reality TV shows featuring frenzied "stage mothers," like Dance Moms or Toddlers and Tiaras.
In her 30-minute solo show (followed by a short Q&A session), Jones plays Ruby, a fading burlesque performer desperate to be loved by her audience. Flashbacks show us Ruby's beginnings as a child sexualized, exploited, and driven into a stage career she doesn't want by a domineering stage mother.
Jones' performance is brave and tragic - the clench-jawed laugh of the older Ruby, and nervously precise dance steps of the younger Ruby, show us a girl (later a woman) frantically seeking approval, regardless of whether she enjoys the means through which it comes. "It is a lot of hard work to be loved" is one of the older Ruby's more heartbreaking observations.
The themes of exploitation and dependence here are relevant and provocative - but also make for an (intentionally) uncomfortable and sombre theatre experience. That's fair enough, given the subject matter, but I'd like to see Dear Mama incorporate perhaps a pinch more Sondheim in its approach - he is, after all, a writer who knows that a bit of levity, however dark, helps even the most bitter medicine go down for an audience.
Dear Mama runs until Jan. 20 at Studio 320 (320-70 Albert St.) as part of SondheimFest.