Who knew Oprah could serve as a symbol of revenge? For the past 25 years, the talk-show host seems to have dedicated herself to inspiring others to improve. She has used her platform to bring viewers whatever she believes can increase their quality of life, from books and book clubs to gurus and political leaders. But in Israel Horovitz's Sins of the Mother, her words take on new, even violent meaning. They complement the protagonists' thirst for vengeance. And though the viewer sees the potential harm in characters' acting on such impulses, Sins of the Mother, through dark and often hilarious plot twists, recognizes these impulses and subsequent actions as potentially equalizing forces in the universe and in the play.
When Philly Verga, a self-assured, semi-wiseass from Gloucester, Massachusetts, first quotes the daytime queen to an old acquaintance, saying, "We don't need these people," the statement is innocuous enough: Forget about those who've hurt you, and move on with your life. But Verga, a successful car dealer, hasn't been back to Gloucester, a struggling fishing town, in 12 years. Here, friends still eke out an existence, grudges aren't forgotten, and tensions boil beneath the cool, salty air. Verga hasn't forgotten the past either: That's why he's so committed to quoting Oprah. He has scores to settle himself. But Philly Verga doesn't show up until the second half.
The 13th in a series of Horovitz works set in the playwright's adopted hometown of Gloucester — a series known as the Gloucester plays — Sins of the Mother initially seems to revolve around the unfortunate circumstances of Louise Martino, a drug-addled woman whose reputation and its ripple effects follow her long after death. Every character is affiliated with her, directly or indirectly, from Bobby Maloney, a Vietnam veteran who has a sick wife and comes to the fishing plant only to get his unemployment card stamped, to Frankie Verga (Philly's coarse, unsympathetic twin brother, both played by Brian Claudio Smith), to Dubbah Morrison, a goofy vegetarian and the play's requisite nice guy. Considering Louise's controversial past, every connection inevitably involves sobering problems. For instance, Maloney's wife is terminally ill because of something he caught from Louise and passed on to his wife.
Louise, however, is just a scapegoat for the many things wrong with the community and its characters, a divergence from what the title Sins of the Mother suggests. She represents an escape for those who wouldn't or couldn't leave Gloucester and instead use her as an outlet of frustration. It's not until her son Douggie Shimmatarro, an easygoing yet tough-enough young guy, played by Francisco Solorzano, shows up in town that these characters act on what's really ailing them. And they do it violently.
What results varies from highly entertaining dialogue and insights into Massachusetts-style gabbing to nuanced, dark, and often hilarious critiques of human nature. The latter is especially compelling when Philly enters in Act Two. Sensing the others have something to hide, he acts as inquisitor. After some interrogating, he figures out what's amiss among his old friends. That's not too hard, though; Philly's smarter than the rest of them. They break down easily under pressure, presumably because of the guilt they've been carrying around. While we'll avoid spoilers here, Philly doesn't waste time in recognizing his opportunity to repair his own emotional scars just as the others have settled their scores. Oprah's benign words, after all, don't run deep enough to heal them. He wants payback as well — and "We don't need these people" evolves into a much more sinister call for action.