It's Mother's Day! Here are 10 of the worst in theatre history

August Osage County Annie Butler Creede Repertory Theatre Photo by John Gary Brown.Annie Butler as Violet Weston in Creede Repertory Theatre’s 2015 production of ‘August: Osage County.’ Photo by John Gary Brown.

If you had, have or are a good mother, this list of 10 terrible moms ought to make you feel good about yourself today

By John Moore
Senior Arts Journalist

Who are your choices for bad theatre moms? Add them as a comment at the bottom of this story. And Happy Mother’s Day!  

NUMBER 1August Osage County OpenStage. Denise Freestone and Sydney Smith. Photo by Joe Hovorka.Violet Weston from August: Osage County. At the center of Tracy Letts’ modern Dust Bowl is this poisonous, pill-popping matriarch. Her worst sin? Perhaps it was allowing her husband to commit suicide when she could have done something to prevent it. Perhaps. (It’s a long list.) Violet has cancer of the mouth — medically and metaphorically. She has no switch to stop her from blurting the most vicious things that come to mind. She pops out furious epithets — most aimed at her own adult daughters — as quickly as she pops in pills. Her spawn all bear varying degrees of inherited burns they surely will pass on to their own children. How evil is Violet? Why, she even blasts Colorado. “It’s not hard to do!” she says in the play. Sorry, Vi, but that makes you The Worst. (Pictured: Denise Freestone and Sydney Smith in OpenStage Theatre’s 2017 production of ‘August: Osage County’ in Fort Collins. Photo by Joe Hovorka.)

NUMBER 2Robert Michael Sanders and Megan Van de Hey in Gypsy for Town Hall Arts Center 2009Mamma Rose Hovick from Gypsy. A rose is a rose is not always a rose. Take thorny Mamma Rose, whose name has become synonymous with “bad show-biz mom.” Rose (a real person) is a domineering mother with an insatiable drive to make stars out of her two daughters, whether in vaudeville, burlesque or strip-tease. (Hey there’s nothing humiliating about stripping as long as you are the star, she comes to believe.) Broadway fans have seen some of the great actors of our time take up the maniacal mantle, from Ethel Merman to Angela Lansbury to Patti Lupone to Tyne Daly to Bernadette Peters. Gypsy drives one daughter away and debases the other until in the end, even she admits: “I did it for me!” Frank Rich called Gypsy “nothing if not Broadway’s own brassy, unlikely answer to King Lear.” (Pictured: Robert Michael Sanders and Megan Van de Hey in Town Hall Arts Center’s 2009 production of ‘Gypsy.’)

NUMBER 3Emily Paton Davies as Maureen, Emma Messenger as Mag Photo 3_ Emma Messenger as Mag, Emily Paton Davies as Maureen Photo credit_ Rachel D GrahamMag from The Beauty Queen of Leenane. The New York Times’ Ben Brantley called Martin McDonagh’s satantically funny Irish mother-daughter tandem of Mag and Maureen Folan “one of the nastiest family units ever to grace (or disgrace) a stage.” Housebound (or is she?) Mag is “a maddening model of passive aggression” who destroys any chance her spinster daughter has for happiness out of her own selfish desire not to die alone. Any trace of love has long ago giving way to spite, resentment, hatred and casual violence. Ah, the Irish. (Pictured: Emma Messenger as Mag and Emily Paton Davies as Maureen in The Edge Theatre’s 2014 production of The Beauty Queen of Leenane.’ Photo by Rachel D. Graham.)

NUMBER 4piper-laurie-carrieMargaret White from Carrie the Musical. Carrie’s overprotective and abusive mother is a religious zealot. Although she loves Carrie and wants to protect her from the world, her fanaticism often drives her to, well, torture her daughter. After Carrie develops telekinesis and goes to the prom against her mom’s wishes, Margaret comes to believe that killing Carrie is the only way to save her from damnation. Like you moms do. But Carrie uses her powers to stop her mother’s heart after being stabbed by her. All’s well that ends well. (Pictured: Piper Laurie in the original ‘Carrie’ film.)

NUMBER 5 Jan Giese as Mae Peterson; Stacie Jackson as Rosie Alvarez and  Jim Miller as Albert Peterson for Town Hall Arts Center's 'Bye Bye Birdie' in 2006. Mae Peterson from Bye, Bye Birdie. The original 1958 script describes Albert’s mother as “the quintessential mamma,” to which I say, “No.” But, it’s a just a harmless musical comedy, you say. To which I say, “No.” But she loves her Sonnyboy. “No.” Mae Peterson is a controlling, selfish mother who not only is constantly interfering in Albert’s budding relationship with his secretary, she has emasculated Albert, leaving him neurotic, weak, easily manipulated and incapable of a grown-up relationship (even though Albert is in his 30s and should have been freed from his mother’s emotional clutches years ago.) Worst: She’s an unabashed racist, constantly denigrating Albert’s long-suffering significant other for no apparent reason other than she’s not white. Psst, Albert: Throw Mamma from the train! (Pictured: Jim Miller as Albert, Jan Giese as Mae and Stacie Jackson as Rosie in Town Hall Arts Center’s 2006 staging of ‘Bye Bye Birdie’.)

NUMBER 6Erica Sarzin-Borrillo. Germinal Stage-Denver. Long Day's Journey Into Night. 2013Mary Tyrone from Long Day’s Journey into Night. The subtitle of Eugene O’Neill’s dysfunctional family classic could be: “Mary’s Magical Mystery Morphine Tour!” One of the many slowly unfolding mysteries of the play is what first set delusional Mary down the self-destructive path of her addiction, and it doesn’t speak well of her parenting skills that the answer seems to lie with son Edmund for the unforgivable crime of having been born. Mary believes Edmund’s birth was God’s punishment for first son Eugene’s death from measles. It’s all a big, tangled emotional web. And there’s nothing better for breaking down your tangled emotional webs like steady stream of legally prescribed morphine. (Wait, that’s not addictive, is it?) Ah, the Irish. (Pictured: Erica Sarzin-Borrillo in Germinal Stage-Denver’s 2013 staging of ‘Long Day’s Journey Into Night.’)

NUMBER 7Mrs Wormwood. Cassie SilvaMrs. Wormwood from Matilda The Musical. On the badness scale, Matilda’s mother pales in comparison to hers father and the evil Mrs. Trunchbull — but she’s awful nonrtheless. In the book, she plays Bingo five times a week. (In the musical, she’s obsessed with ballroom dancing.) Worst, Mrs. Wormwood doesn’t give two hoots about her own daughter. She mocks Matilda’s intellect and interest in books, telling her that looks are more important than getting an education. As a mom, she gets an F. (Pictured: Cassie Silva in the national touring production of Matlida The Musical.) 

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NUMBER 8Marge Lamb. Next to NormalDiana Goodman from Next to Normal. To be absolutely clear, she’s not bad. Just a bad mom. One of the worst, due mostly to her worsening struggles with bipolar disorder over 16 years. During the course of this wrenching, groundbreaking story, Diana visualizes her dead son alive and grown; she completely ignores her daughter who is very much alive; she slashes her wrists; she undergoes electroshock therapy; and ultimately, for her beleaguered husband’s own good (she says) she walks out on her family. And in a nice little closing twist, she somehow bequeaths her bipolar disease onto her husband, who soon starts to see their dead son, too. Couples should share everything. Just not visions of resurrected sons. And really … so many sandwiches. (Pictured: Margie Lamb in ‘Next to Normal’ at the Midtown Arts Center in Fort Collins.)

NUMBER 9Amnelia Pedlow nd Kathleen McCall. The Glass Menagerie in 2016. Photo by Adams Viscom Amanda Wingfield from The Glass Menagerie. So much to cover in such a short paragraph. Amanda is a delusional, nagging, controlling, egomaniac who lives in the past. That she loves her children is almost incidental to the crushing, suffocating damage she has imposed upon them since birth. Most debilitating: The constant reinforcement to daughter Laura that she is damaged goods, when the script gives every indication that whatever mobility issues the wounded bird had back in high school, they went mostly unnoticed by everyone but Amanda. (She’s certainly well enough to walk the streets all day lying to her mother.) Now Laura is too messed up to hold down a job, much less a relationship. To be sure, Amanda is the result and personification of her gender-stilted times, but her legacy is two damaged children. The missing mystery character in this play is Amanda’s AWOL husband. But every time I see this play, I leave thinking he was lucky to get out alive. (Pictured: Amelia Pedlow and Kathleen McCall in the DCPA Theatre Company’s ‘The Glass Menagerie’ in 2016. Photo by Adams Viscom.)

NUMBER 10into-the-woodsThe Bad Mums from Into the Woods. Take your pick: Cinderella’s stepmother spawned two vulture daughters who find joy in abusing their stepsister; and now treats her dead husband’s daughter like an abused servant. It’s been argued that the cursed Witch of this story is more misunderstood than evil, but, you know … she DID steal her neighbor’s newborn daughter and cursed the family to an infertile life. So at the very least needs to work on her conflict-resolution skills. Then there is Jack’s poor single mom, who means well but raises a clueless son whose best friend is an imaginary cow. She’s not a bad person, but she hasn’t exactly prepared her son to function well in the outside world. (Pictured: Beth Beyer as The Witch in ‘Into the Woods’ for Candlelight Dinner Playhouse in 2016.)

Now who are your choices for theatre’s worst moms? Add them as a comment at the bottom of this list. And have a Happy Mother’s Day!

John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S. by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist.

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