All Things Entertaining and Cultural
Her mother, Darren Stone, a published poet, was a Christian Scientist. She developed cancer in her jawbone that spread to her palate, nasal passages, sinus membranes, and other facial regions over a 18-year span during which “Stoney” believed prayerful intervention would whisk away her malady and restore her to pristine health.
Pain and an amazing maxillofacial cavity ended that fantasy before Stoney’s face was consumed entirely. Her suffering was such, she agreed to see a doctor. After radiation and extensive operations, including painstaking facial reconstruction, Stoney had a new visage that would last her the more than 20 years she had yet to live. One vestige of her therapy was she had to don a prosthetic nose.
As Brooke states, she had four of them, interchangeable, or maybe there was a special nose for holidays. The nose would fit over a construction surgeons made during Stoney’s treatment and be camouflaged by makeup.
If it sounds as if I’m being too lighthearted and glib around what had to be harrowing ordeal for Stoney and Brooke, who, in the midst of conducting a busy club, composing, and recording career, was one of Stoney’s primary caregivers, I am only following Brooke’s jaunty, amused, bemused lead by matching the tone she establishes in her play.
Miraculous rescue from Christian Science hoodad — my words, not Brooke’s — is only one tribulation Brooke faced during her close relationship with her mother. As Stoney aged, she developed dementia that became progressively severe and became a source for more anxiety and comedy.
Yes, comedy. Brooke may have gone through a cavalcade of emotions, second thoughts, worries, and tough decisions while Stoney was alive and in her care. Now remembering her mother, and reflecting on the various frays and upheavals Stoney’s unique life outlook engendered, Brooke can approach her experience with the humor of hindsight and other angles all of which form a prism of past tense. What was serious and grueling is now finished and laced with cathartic nostalgia and bright joking. Brooke is an upbeat woman, one who was trained by her mother to notice the jest, and her show remains pleasant, funny, wistful, and smart as Brooke relates all it took to see the humor while being the daughter who was supposed to, and destined to, write Stoney’s life and quips down.
That duty and destiny are also literal. Long before she delves into horrendous cancer and diminishing dementia, Brooke establishes her mother as a character who, with little provocation, put on bizarre costumes, role play, entertain as a clown, sing songs of her own invention, and fashion rimshot jokes. From the time Brooke can remember, she was enlisted as her mother’s amanuensis. Stoney would utter was she regarded as a snappy punch line or bon mot, and Brooke would hear the leitmotif, “That’s good! Boolie, write that down!”
Boolie is Brooke’s family nickname, the one Stoney, who traded in many names, using the one that suited her whim that moment, used in directing her through early life and when she needed Jonatha’s help in later life.
Brooke does not take a tone of martyrdom or sacrifice in her tune-peppered monologue, but you can read those traits between the perky reading of her lines.
“My Mother Has 4 Noses” works because it sneaks up on you. It starts as an intimate conversation with Brooke sharing some memories while slides behind her add spark by depicting Stoney’s quartet of probosci in an egg carton or styrofoam take-off container or by showing Stoney, in the midst of her disappearing face donning clown makeup to entertain at some Eastern Massachusetts street event. It builds with what Stoney’s beliefs, habits, and impulses wrought in her life. It ends with dementia that Stoney at times comprehends she has.
All is told in a sprightly, carefree that demonstrates Brooke’s wit and intelligence, but in the end, even with Brooke retaining a patina of cheerfulness, your heart is tugged. You have become acquainted with Stoney, and as at the end of any worthy biography, the death of this stranger you only know from her daughter’s lively testimony, is a loss. It affects you.
So does something that happens just before Brooke picks up her guitar and winds down “4 Noses.”
She reads one of Stoney’s poems from a volume of published verse by Darren Stone Nelson. From other compositions Brooke has read, you get the impression Stoney is at best a gifted amateur, a poet manqué who dabbles rhyme and calls it art. All of a sudden, Brooke reads a beautiful, well crafted, perceptively astute poem of her mother’s, and your assessment, if not your shame at jumping to a conclusion, goes out of the window.
Stoney can write. Her works are not happy doggerel she jotted down, or had Boolie write down, to indulge herself. After having heard from Brooke for 75 minutes, Stoney gets her literary say, and a new layer of respect and regard is ladled on.
Dementia has become very important to me because it so severely affected my father who lived with me, in my care, until a week before he died, at which time I spent as much time with him as I could and was there to hold him and inform the nurse when he passed. Like Brooke, I hoped for that one moment of restored lucidity at the end. Four days before Dad died, I thought I was going to get my wish. For about 20 minutes, we had a normal conversation that was a bit stunning.
Like the Christian Science cure Stoney was expecting, the “normal” period was a false alarm, a quirk of the mind, as I had experienced before in the three years Dad was at his worst. But those instances generated hope and are now one more cause for the gentle, affectionate humor Brooke carries off so well in “4 Noses.”
Although her experience with Stoney is different from mine with Moishe, they have parallels. If I never witnessed or managed someone else’s dementia, I could appreciate the amused catch in Brooke’s voice.
That because Brooke is a seasoned writer and performer who knows how to measure her show, give it beats, and move it from high to low points, from serious to hilarious while remaining cool and entertaining.
“My Mother Has 4 Noses” is a merry but gracious and heartfelt valentine to a character who happened to be Jonatha Brooke’s mother. The show is filled with appreciation and irony. Its story is told affably and with a “what’re gonna do?” shrug.
The point is Brooke cancelled long anticipated vacations, delayed crucial writing and recording sessions, and enlisted her husband and his sister to thank and return to her mother the creative spark, eccentric point of view, and willingness to take a chance and present your show that Stoney gave her.
It’s funny. It’s sharp. It’s also authentic and moving.
I am a “words” person, so I enjoyed the narrative and the accompanying slides and videos the most. Stoney’s story grabbed me.
I enjoyed the songs Brooke wrote for her show, but I did not find them musically or lyrically varied enough to key into them they I could the spoken memories.
Nothing is wrong with the songs. They’re perfectly competent, and Brooke sings gorgeously. I preferred the play to the music because the words and emotions in the script were more real and affecting for me. The lyrics seemed to easy to conceive and too repetitious for my taste. The music was as jaunty as anything else in ” Noses,” but it sounded like everything you might hear on a new music alternative station like WXPN and never impressed me the with originality, sincerity, humor, and sentiment of the narrative.
Jeremy B. Cohen earns kudos for the pace of his direction and the lively tone Brooke maintained throughout. The set by Caite Hevner Kemp married the hominess of a kitchen table with the feel of a high-tech studio is a way that blended the intimacy of Brooke’s story with the contemporary sound of her music. Kemp also did the projection design, which was evocative and excellent.
“My Mother Has 4 Noses” runs through Sunday, June 28 on the Haas Stage at People’s Light & Theatre Company, 39 Conestoga Road (Route 401 just south of Route 30), in Malvern, Pa. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Tickets range from $77 to $60, with adjustments for discounts and VIP seats, and can be obtained by calling 610-644-3500 or by visiting www.peopleslight.org