David's Mother might be an issue play, but it's not about the issue you'd think. Sure, the David in question grapples with severe mental impairment, but this isn't one of those fuzzy-wuzzy morality tales about someone parlaying severe mental impairment into slap-on-the-back success—you know, like Forrest Gump or the current American presidency. Instead, under Jody J. Reeves' direction, David's Mother uses David's addled brain as the nucleus of concentric rings of codependence and control. It's less an issue play than a character study, and as befits the title, it's less about David than his mother, Sally.
Appropriately, it's a sometimes tense and taxing experience. The embattled Sally (Cathy Petz) faces the unenviable task of trying to be all things to all people—a responsibility not coincidentally also assumed by the production itself. Certainly any slice-of-life play is going to encompass everything from tears and jeers to laughs and gaffes, but like Sally, Mother has almost too much going on to catch its breath. Besides caring for the aforementioned David (an admirably understated Eric Eisenbrey, performing a character instead of a symbol), Sally is juggling a recent divorce, a fragmented family, a rosy-cheeked new beau (Cory Harley Vincent) and a tender-if-meddling sister (Annette Lewis). Oh, and did we mention the snow job she's trying to pull on the New York Department of Child Welfare?
Forgive us if we looked as harried as Susan Shearer's social worker Gladys as we weathered Sally's whirlwind life and rattlesnake charm ("So, how long has it been since your wife died?" she chirps on a first date). Between the whiplash flashbacks and the roiling cast of characters, it takes a while for the audience and the performers to get their footing.
The best moments are the little ones, as when Sally wipes David's face clean with an uncalculated and routine tenderness. Mother is by turns manic and maudlin, but it fares best when Petz manages to fuse the two: "People think if they just talk loud, he'll act normal," she snarks to her boyfriend as he tries to teach David to use the VCR. It hurt to laugh at that one—like it should.
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David's Mother at the Empire Theater, 200 N. Broadway, Santa Ana, (714) 547-4688. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 p.m. Through Feb. 3. $12-$15.