In the loveliest segment of the one-act monologue Going Back Naked - the first half of New Ground Theatre's Going Back Naked: Two Plays by Local Playwrights - author Melissa McBain, portraying herself, reads from her late mother's 70-year-old love letters, and lands on a passage wherein her Mom refers to the children she hopes to one day have with her young paramour. Marveling that she was being thought of a full decade before she was actually born, McBain takes a beat and smiles, and addresses her absent mother in tones of longing and wonder: "You imagined me."
It's a tender, gently touching moment - the finest one during Thursday's matinée performance - and for the hour that she's on stage, the playwright/performer offers a heartfelt quid pro quo: McBain was imagined by her mother, and now McBain is allowing her mother to be imagined by us. Going Back Naked is part recitation and part confession, but mostly it's a tribute to an obviously gifted, spirited, and much beloved woman; by the time her daughter takes a curtain call, she's also a woman you feel you've grown unexpectedly close to.
As McBain's monologue tells it, Ann Fountain (90 years old at the time of her passing) was a remarkable lady, a world-class pianist who ceded the musical dreams of her youth, sold Bibles door to door in the Depression-era deep south, and eventually raised five children as the wife of a minister. But just because someone leads a rich life doesn't necessarily mean her story will yield a rich theatrical experience, and one of the principal pleasures of Going Back Naked lies in how smartly McBain has shaped her mother's biography.
Opening with the events leading to Fountain's death, McBain then flashes back to her mother's life through the readings of numerous love letters and telegrams, missives that, one by one, begin to form a complete portrait of a woman glimpsed only in fragments. There's a mystery at the heart of Going Back Naked - Is Fountain's first true love the man she eventually married? - but the monologue is more compelling for its gradual creation of a whole, complex figure out of memories and yellowing pieces of paper. When, at the one-act's climax, we finally get to hear a recording of Fountain playing the piano, and finally get to hear her actual voice, the moment is magical; it's like having a long-awaited encounter with a childhood pen pal.
Though Susan Dragon McDonald stages the piece with as much logical movement as its setup probably allows, it's too bad that so much of McBain's focus is, by necessity, directed downward - watching people read isn't a very absorbing stage sight - and even at an hour, Going Back Naked still feels a little long. (There are amusing but unnecessary detours, such as McBain's description of a dinner party at which a surgeon unhooked her brassiere, that seem to belong in a different show altogether.) But it's a charming and lightly poignant piece of work, and McBain portrays herself with vitality, good humor, and unforced emotionalism. I'm thinking Ann Fountain would be more than honored by her daughter's homage - she'd be deeply proud.
Like Going Back Naked, the second play in New Ground's two-fer - writer/director Chris Jansen's Dream a Little Dream of Me - is also an account of a mother's life as told by her daughter. That, however, is pretty much where the similarities end, as Jansen's fictional (I'm presuming) and comedic one-act (1) also gives its central figure a father to contend with, (2) is as theatrically fanciful as McBain's play is down-to-earth, and (3) presents audiences with that most untraditional and welcome of stage characters: the untrustworthy narrator.
Not that you necessarily know that right off the bat. As personified by a sardonic and spectacularly enjoyable Maggie Woolley, Dream a Little Dream's heroine, Veronica, introduces herself as a psychologist-in-training, and explains that she's going to explore family dysfunction by examining her parents: Gloria (Tracy Pelzer-Timm), who vacantly whiles away her days painting duck decoys, and Ted (Andy Koski), a grump with his head forever buried in a newspaper. (We also meet Veronica's unmotivated brother, Budd, whom Eddie Staver III portrays with scene-stealing shrugs, grunts, and grimaces.) Jumping in and out of flashbacks, where she assumes the roles of different characters in her parents' lives, Veronica intends to show how her parents' relationship went from initially bad to much, much worse, and given their obvious lack of connection and vociferous squabbles - which Pelzer-Timm and Koski enact with superb comic hostility - it's easy to be on Veronica's side: These two are, indeed, a match made in hell.
Or are they? Jansen, as she demonstrated in her priceless 2007 one-act Fudge!, writes delightful, oftentimes bitingly funny dialogue, yet she has no qualms about making her protagonists the (unknowing) butt of her jokes; she's happy for them to be seen as self-serving, misguided, and even a little foolish. With Dream a Little Dream, Jansen gives us a lead that, at first, seems to be a confident and collected young woman, and Woolley, with her radiant level-headedness and sharp wit, completely sells the image. But even in her opening lines of dialogue, in which Veronica admits to being embarrassed about her "pretentious" name, we have our doubts - since when is "Veronica" pretentious? - and the more she points our her parents' deficiencies, the more alert we become to the character's own, unexamined failings.
Sure, her folks are rather ridiculous, but isn't Veronica rather snide and judgmental? And sure, their relationship with her isn't warm and bosomy, but does Veronica herself make any kind of effort? And isn't her parents' marriage based on at least some kind of romantic attraction? Or even - gulp! - love? Dream a Little Dream of Me is fast-paced and frisky - with Michael McPeters' first-rate lighting designs adding their own narrative momentum - but what makes it truly special is the author's clear-eyed view of family dynamics. Jansen recognizes that no matter their weaknesses, everyone here is equally deserving of empathy; it's Veronica who can't quite see that, and the character's blindness, combined with the playwright's shrewdness, makes this clever, tart little play linger in your mind long after it ends.
For tickets and information, call (563)326-7529 or visit NewGroundTheatre.org.