Parents are our best cheerleaders and (sometimes) our greatest adversaries—a contradiction that artists have explored (and exploited) for as long as there has been art. Playwrights are no exception. Among the most terrifying theatrical mothers is Mag in The Beauty Queen of Leenane (which played the Mark Taper Forum November 9 – December 18, 2016). In honor of this garish masterpiece, we’ve put together a list of other famous (or should we say infamous) mothers who have graced our three stages over the years.
Amanda Wingfield—'The Glass Menagerie'
Amanda is more sympathetic than most of the mothers on this list. After all, as a single woman raising two children far from her native south, there is plenty to admire about the Wingfield matriarch. But she still makes the list because it’s hard to ignore the domineering tactics she employs in her attempt to marry off her fragile-as-glass daughter, Laura. And the consequences of those tactics are even harder to ignore. As played by Judith Ivey, Amanda gave us “truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion” at the Taper in 2010.
The Witch—'Into the Woods'
Witches are fairy tales’ oldest boogeymen. Whether they are trying to eat little German children, riding around Russian forests in demon houses, or attempting to murder Kansas girls and their little dogs, they tend to be a pretty terrifying bunch. But Stephen Sondheim’s creation from Into the Woods is not your average fairy tale antagonist. She is a complicated and recalcitrant figure whose status may be more a product of her circumstances than of her character. That being said, she does lock Rapunzel in a tower for over 10 years and curse her neighbors for stealing a rampion from her garden, which is pretty cold in our book. Into the Woods has had a number of Center Theatre Group productions. It first played the Ahmanson Theatre in 1989, returned in 2002, and is set to delight audience members once again as a part of our 2017/18 Ahmanson Season.
Bernarda Alba—'The House of Bernarda Alba'
Bernarda Alba makes most of the ladies on this list look like paragons of motherly devotion. While Federico García Lorca’s creation may not physically harm her children, she comes pretty close to actively hating them. Also, unlike most of the mothers on this list—who keep their influence confined to their progeny—Bernarda manages to put the fear of God (and herself) into an entire household of women. The House of Bernarda Alba played the Mark Taper Forum in 2002, and featured direction by Lisa Peterson, as well as the legendary Chita Rivera in the show’s title role.
Violet Weston—'August: Osage County'
The pill-popping matriarch of the Weston clan is probably one of the more infamous theatrical mothers of the 21st century. Whether she is emotionally eviscerating each and every one of her family members by “speaking truths” at the dinner table or crushing her daughters’ hopes and dreams, Violet is a force that is not to be crossed. To add to her infamy, by the end of the play it’s clear that Violet cares about one thing and one thing only—her addiction. And God help you if you get in the way of that. August: Osage County played the Ahmanson Theatre in 2009 with Estelle Parsons playing Violet.
Madam—Roger and Hammerstein's 'Cinderella'
This 1957 classic (originally presented in a televised broadcast) boasts a character who has sometimes literally been referred to as an evil stepmother. Madame—as she is known in this musical version of the Grimms’ fairy tale—doesn’t miss a beat in that regard. She spends much of the play lobbying for the marital prospects of her two blood daughters, while forcing her stepdaughter to work in abject poverty as the housemaid. Talk about harsh! Fran Drescher was memorably evil (and fun!) as Madame when Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella played the Ahmanson in 2015.
Big Edie—'Grey Gardens—the Musical'
It would be a crime not to include Edith Bouvier Beale "Big Edie" of Grey Gardens on this list. While she can’t be said to actively oppose her daughter, the crushing co-dependent relationship she pulls her into isn’t very good for Little Edie, either. Far from being a truly hateful individual, Big Edie is a sober reminder that tragedy can stick us all, no matter how important we believe ourselves to be. Grey Gardens brought Long Island to the Ahmanson in 2016, with Rachel York playing Big Edie in Act I and Betty Buckley playing her in Act II.
Clemencia is an absolute beast! Not only does she use her wits to claw her way to the top of a male-dominated East L.A. gang culture, but when her husband turns out to be a womanizing monster, she murders him and takes control of his territory herself. When not ruling her roost with savage aplomb, Clemencia goes head to head with her hate-fueled and vengeful daughter in this adaptation of Sophocles’ Electra from Luis Alfaro. This tale of violence, revenge, and justice played the Taper in 2005 with Bertila Damas as Clemencia.
Honorable Mention: Beula—'Forever'
Dael Orlandersmith’s unflinching portrait of her childhood, created in the wake of her mother’s death, is not for the faint of heart. And while she never appears on stage in the flesh, the mother of Orlandersmith’s telling is a woman of almost nightmarish proportions. Equal parts victim and victimizer, Beula is the type of figure who is terrifying for a lot of reasons. But most terrifying of all is that Beula is a character who it would be so easy to become. Forever played the Kirk Douglas Theatre in 2015.