Madonna & Child
LENA: One Sunday morning when Paula was four I was preparing lunch for half a dozen friends – bread, pasta, lots of garlic, gallons of wine – and I took this giant pot I found at a street sale in the East Village, mammoth, straight out of a Dickens’ workhouse, and I filled it with water and put it on to boil then left the kitchen to open up another bottle of wine – I was drinking back then, too much, I was also probably high, whatever – but I left Paula coloring in her playbook and the water boiled over. She wanted to help, I imagine, so she pulled the pot off the burner – (a brief silence) – I was in the bathroom and I heard this odd, high shriek, like a kettle going off. I was curious so I headed to the kitchen, no hurry, and there she was, standing at the foot of the stove, open-mouthed, soaking wet, very funny if it weren’t for the polyester t-shirt that had melted to her chest. The neighbors heard me scream, floors below. (a beat) God heard me too, I think. The next year He answered my prayers with a challenge – He gave me a son.
JACK: What is this – a top-the-abortion story? What kind of guilt-trip are you trying to send me on?!
LENA: (exploding) Why does it always have to be about you?! (A beat. She’s fierce:) I held her for sixty-seven hours in the hospital. That’s how long it took for her to die. I never slept, I drifted, I came back seconds, hours later with her little limp body still in my arms, still heaving for breath, still trying somehow to stay with me here. And in those sixty-seven hours I felt – (pointing to the Virgin Mary in the painting) – what she felt. Her son became my child in my delirium, because I can’t imagine that he suffered any more than Paula. And she became my friend, my anchor, she kept me, frankly, from killing myself. But I don’t want to talk about that, I won’t so much as cast breath on that lake of guilt – you can only imagine how deep it goes – I won’t stir those waters with even the slightest wind, except to say that that was the beginning of my belief. Every time I held a dying someone after that, I felt Mary’s grace, and Paula’s weight.
JACK: Why didn’t you ever tell me this?
LENA: I didn’t want to burden you, Jack.
JACK: Ha! At least now it has a name.
Art-and-antiques restorer Jack discovers what may or may not be a priceless masterpiece hidden behind a mirror, while his mother Lena tries to get him to return to the Catholic Church. Meanwhile an African priest struggles with the Vatican in an attempt to have a martyred nun canonized, and a female investigator probes as deep as she can into the life and death of a possible saint with terrible secrets.
This play is perhaps my most personal piece to date. I wrote the first draft (or most of one) very quickly, completing it at the New Harmony Playwrights Conference in 2007, where it had its first public reading. The play is much like the painting it circles around – a secret contained behind a mirror, a pentimento gradually uncovered, revealing layers beneath layers of history bleeding through to the surface. It’s a play I felt I had to write, without concern about how, when or where it might be produced. What I most like about this play is that the action happens mostly through the audience’s eyes – what they discover as the piece unfolds, gradually revealing its secrets.