Portland writer and performer Elizabeth Peavey learned something about herself when she opened her one-woman show “My Mother’s Clothes Are Not My Mother” in New York this month.
She booked two nights in an off-off-Broadway theater over Mother’s Day weekend. It marked the first time Peavey performed her poignant and funny show about life after the death of her mom outside of Maine and away from audiences “where I think I knew every person in every single seat.” The first night in New York was, in her words, “a train wreck.” She later backed away from that harsh judgment, but felt dispirited and discouraged immediately after the show. The performance was riddled with tech issues, and Peavey spent so much energy during the day preparing that she lacked her usual panache.
The next night, she nailed it.
She spent the day before the second night alone in Central Park and other places in the city. She reflected less on her mistakes from opening night, and more on the show itself. Instead of harboring nervous energy, she allowed it to seep out during the course of what turned into a quiet day in Manhattan. She relaxed.
By the time she arrived at the 45-seat block box theater near Penn Station, she was in her zone. She resolved the tech issues, and gave a triumphant performance.
“I’m glad it occurred in that order. It was nice to close with my head held high,” Peavey said last week. “In the overall picture, I will call it a resounding success – with a giant learning curve thrown in.”
Peavey returns to Portland wiser, and ready for the next chapter in “My Mother’s Clothes Are Not My Mother.” She performs a revised version of the show twice in the coming weeks: June 6 at the St. Lawrence Arts Center in Portland, where she launched the show nearly four years ago, and June 10 at the Stonington Opera House. After that, she hopes to take it on the road.
PEAVEY BEGAN WRITING the show in 2011, two years after he mother died. Her father died 30 years ago. The impetus was sorting through her mother’s belongings, and trying to decide what to pitch and what to save.
A writer who specializes in memoir, Peavey, 55, wanted to capture not just the emotions of losing a final parent and the issues that loss raises, but also the practical challenges of moving forward with a deceased parent’s belongings. Some of things were personal, others not. But each plate, each item of clothing and every trinket took on added meaning.
The writing process, which Peavey completed over two weeks at a camp in western Maine, helped her reconcile her mother’s death. Among other things, she came to understand that her mother’s things do not add up to Mom. “My Mother’s Clothes Are Not My Mother” forces the question: How do we know when to let go? It raises what she calls “the muddy truth of aging parents.”
She wrote it not as a play, although she uses props from her mom’s possessions, but as a series of connected monologues. It’s her own story, and she performs in the first person with humor and pathos.
Peavey opened with two sold-out shows at the St. Lawrence in fall 2011, and eventually performed there seven times that fall. Those early shows were loaded with improvised bits, which have since become scripted and connected to tell a larger narrative that paints a portrait of mother and daughter.
She took it across Maine throughout 2012, selling out nearly everywhere she went. Maine audiences loved the show, and Peavey charmed them with stories about her mother’s favorite hair salon (Mr. Louis Coiffures in Bath, where Peavey grew up) or her favorite clothes store (Bernie’s Fashions in Portland).
“I think I’ve got something here,” she told herself.
In 2013, she won a Maine Literary Award from the Maine Writers & Publishers Alliance for best drama.
She performed it only a few times in 2014. She took most of the year turning her connected monologues into a full-length book. She completed the writing this past winter, and sent the manuscript to her agent in April.
She also refined the stage show with the intent of relaunching it. She stripped it down to one act and 90 minutes, and removed most, but not all, of the Maine references. She still talks about Bernie’s Fashions, telling audiences, “Every town had a store like Bernie’s — a cross between Talbot’s and Frederick’s of Hollywood.”
But the core and crux of the show – the mourning, sorting and saying goodbye – is universal among babyboomers.
That’s why Peavey decided to take it outside of Maine. She knew she had created more than a local hit, and wanted to test her theory. She started with New York after a conversation with Good Theater co-founder Brian Allen. He put her in touch with Stage Left Studio, a sixth-floor theater on West 30th Street. Stage Left director Cheryl King specializes in working with actors on one-person shows, and has worked with actors from Maine before,
Peavey booked the theater, and counted on faith to sell tickets.
Her faith was rewarded. On April 30, she had sold 7 advance tickets. Both shows sold out.
Deirdre Nice, executive and artistic director at the St. Lawrence, has always encouraged Peavey to think big, and was not surprised that Peavey sold tickets in New York.
“Initially, she did really well with her friends and family, and she thought, “I’ve exhausted the audience of who will come see it.’ But word of mouth spread, and she did really well with all of her shows and expanded her audience,” Nice said.
“The show could easily have a lifespan of forever.”
Peavey hopes so.
“I believe in the universality of the show. People aren’t coming to see me. The fact that I keep selling out houses is not me. I have struck a chord that reverberates, and it’s not just with women of a certain age,” she said.