This Mother’s Day, Queensland Theatre takes a look back at some of the most terrific, tragic and terrifying mums to have graced our stages in recent years.
Carita Farrer-Spencer, Ladies in Black, 2015
Mrs Miles is the very model of a 1950s Aussie wife — she stays at home, hems clothing, has dinner on the table for her gruff, conservative, night-shift worker husband, and dotes on her daughter Lesley. Mrs Miles never really complains about her station in life. In her day, she wouldn’t have been thinking about a career or higher education in the same way her daughter does. So in some ways, she’s living vicariously through her offspring, and the two are very close, almost like best friends. She knows her girl is bright — “the tops, top in English, French, literature, Latin, top in most things”.
Recognising that she didn’t have the same intelligence or opportunity, she’s supportive and loving, a buffer between the stubborn and traditional Mr Miles and their wide-eyed daughter. Mrs Miles is the glue that holds this family together. And when her daughter eventually renounces her given name, insisting she be called Lisa and not Lesley, who could forget Mrs Miles’ heart-wrenching musical moment, as she realises her child isn’t 10 years old anymore, and is now an independent young woman, beyond her command? “If you only knew what being grown-up was like, you wouldn’t want to do it any faster than you have to,” she tells Lisa.
Louise Brehmer, The Longest Minute, 2018
When Margaret fell in love with star player and hometown hero Frank ‘The Black Flash’ Wright at her first footy game in Townsville, both sets of parents initially said ‘don’t do it’. But Margaret became the Indigenous prodigy’s biggest supporter, and they eventually became teammates in the most high-stakes game of all: parenthood. Their daughter Jess was born on the night of the North Queensland Cowboys’ first game – and first loss – almost at the stadium itself. Their marriage has its strains, with Frank continuing to chase his past glories, long after his heyday on the field, and that filters down to their kids — Laurie, who he encourages to follow in his footsteps, and Jess, whose ambitions he squashes down. Margaret is the one who encourages Jess in her quest to be a sporting legend against the odds. “Jess, you’re a rugby league player. Remember? You get up, and run at ‘em again,” she says.
Margaret is also the rock who has to absorb the extraordinary pressures put upon this family, and when tragedy strikes and one of her kids is killed on a city street, she’s the one who has to pick up the pieces and air some uncomfortable home truths.
Anna McGahan, Hydra, 2019
Charmian Clift was a candle that burned twice as bright for half as long. A mother of four, the famed Australian writer gave up her infant firstborn daughter, and then went on to have three more children with her husband George Johnston — eldest son Martin, daughter Shane, and youngest son Jason. The play Hydra by Sue Smith is narrated by a version of Martin, recounting perhaps the most famous episode in the literary family’s lives — when they were “living the bohemian dream” on the Greek island of Hydra. The couple had come to Hydra with Martin and Shane to live and write in 1955, and Jason was born there a year later. It was presented in the play as an idyllic, sepia-tinged time of love and happiness that eventually devolved into a Greek tragedy of illness, anger and jealousy as the Johnstons’ relationship fell apart. All fiercely intelligent and independent, the children had trouble settling back into Australian life when the family returned in 1964.
Fellow Hydra expatriate, the Kiwi author Redmond ‘Bim’ Wallis, described Charmian on Hydra thus: “The head of a literary coterie, beautiful, brilliant, compassionate, but still the mother of three children, running a house. Sweating blood against almost impossible difficulties … and yet producing great art.” In the years that followed, tragedy continued to strike the family, claiming Charmian, Shane and eventually Martin in its wake.
ANNA “MOTHER COURAGE” FIERLING
Ursula Yovich, Mother Courage and Her Children, 2013
Hers is a rag-tag blended family, suited to the near-future dystopian Australia she inhabits, torn apart in a war between mining companies. In an Australian adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s classic play, Ursula Yovich’s Mother Courage is a profiteer and a parasite of the protracted war between mega-corporations — peddling boots, feed and grog from her canteen wagon to hungry and under-equipped soldiers on both sides.
It’s no place to raise a child, but Mother Courage is raising three, all with different fathers. Her son Eilif is hotheaded, foolhardy and strong, big as a Moreton Bay fig. Her second-born, Swiss Cheese, is honest but not too bright. They pull the wagon, as she rides with her mute daughter, Katrin. Over the exhausting years of the war, this pragmatic woman loses all her children. Eilif is press-ganged into military service. Swiss Cheese is captured in a dispute over a paycheck and shot, with his body dragged in front of his mother — she must disavow him, or suffer the same fate. And tragic Katrin is assaulted, disfigured, and – in the seventeenth year of the war – shot dead by invading soldiers for drumming loud enough to wake a town and warn of an ambush. Mother Courage, having buried the last of her children, takes up the yoke of the wagon herself and continues on, alone, as the war still rages.
MRS MYRTLE WEBB
Amy Lehpamer, Our Town, 2021
Mrs Webb is the mother of Emily and Wally, a homemaker in the small and idyllic town of Grover’s Corners. The script of Our Town introduces her as thin, serious and crisp, and she’s certainly a traditional no-nonsense mother. She’s raising her kids the only way she knows how, with strict discipline — eat your breakfast, stand up straight, pull up your pants, and no books at the dining table. “I'd rather have my children healthy than bright,” she opines, despite being married to the editor of the Sentinel newspaper.
A friend and neighbour of Mrs Julia Gibbs, played by Libby Munro, they mirror each other in many ways — two kids the same age, a professional husband, a fully-stocked kitchen garden. Late in the play, the Stage Manager says of the pair: “Both of those ladies cooked three meals a day, one of 'em for 20 years, the other for 40, and no summer vacation. They brought up two children apiece, washed, cleaned the house, and never a nervous breakdown.” Mrs Webb isn’t an emotional woman, but her big moment comes at Emily’s wedding, when she reveals her innocent, caring nature by worrying aloud that she is sending her daughter to the altar without having taught her enough about married, adult life. “There's something downright cruel about sending our girls out into marriage this way,” she says. “I hope some of her girl friends have told her a thing or two… I went into it blind as a bat myself. The whole world's wrong, that's what's the matter.”
Libby Munro, Grounded, 2015
When the Pilot learnt she was going to be a mother, she was in her F-16 on a mission. When she almost threw up in her mask, she knew. She was a Major, the Air Force’s finest, a top gun fighter pilot, one of the boys, but an unexpected pregnancy ended her career in the sky and landed her a desk job. When her daughter Samantha was born, the Pilot knew she’d be trouble by the spark in her eye, this little girl who would become obsessed with pink ponies and hug her mother so tight.
The Pilot’s new job is flying unmanned Reaper drones remotely from a military base outside Las Vegas. Every day, she drops her daughter at daycare, goes off to fight a war over Wi-Fi in a different desert, and comes home at the end of a 12-hour shift to a sleeping kid and a sleepy husband. It takes the Pilot some time to admit it to herself, but motherhood has changed her forever, to the point where thinking of her daughter makes her unable to discharge her deadly duties.
Christen O’Leary, Triple X, 2021
Deb is a little package of hang-ups, the diminutive, controlling mother of two complicated children — Scotty, the burnt-out Wall Street banker bro, and Claire, the holier-than-thou leftwing lesbian activist. They’re not exactly perfect, but it’s amazing they’ve turned out as well as they did under this highly-strung and ultra-conservative Southern belle’s sometimes-withering tongue. It’s not that she’s cruel, necessarily, she just has no filter when it comes to criticising her kids.
Having a blood sugar crash doesn’t help — in a moment of weakness, she unleashes a show-stopping rant, after she discovers avocado oil, of all things, in her son’s kitchen, she storms off, muttering: “I’m cursed! I’ve only ever done my best and they just take, take, take from me. And what did I do to deserve this? A lesbian. A lesbian! And now, avocado oil?! Irresponsible! Bad choices! I raised them better than this! I wish I’d never had them.” And if she thinks that’s bad, wait until she finds out her son is having an affair with trans performer Dexie behind his fiancee’s back. All Deb ever wanted was for her kids to be happy, and it's unfortunate that her many idiosyncrasies get in the way. Not to worry, it all makes for unforgettable moments of sometimes squirmy comedy from the masterful Christen O'Leary.
IDA “BIG MAMA” POLLITT
Carol Burns, Cat in a Hot Tin Roof, 2011
Ageing couple Big Daddy and Big Mama Pollitt are as large in personality as they are in nickname. Presiding over their estate, the Mississippi Delta’s biggest cotton-planting operation, they are the epitome of Southern monied landowners. Played to perfection by the late Carol Burns in this 2011 production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Big Mama is also physically large, short and stout at 60 years of age, “huffing and puffing like an old bulldog” or roaring around her mansion “like a charging rhino”, breathless most of the time.
Forever tensed-up and bedecked in flashy gems and lace, she’s a complicated and intriguing figure as the overbearing matriarch of this dysfunctional family: both tragic and pitiable, but full of humour and horseplay and self-deprecation, always “laughing like hell at herself”. Mama has spent a life of quiet humiliation standing by her man, dedicated and submissive to Big Daddy in spite of his insults, jokes at her expense and animosity to her, deluding herself that he doesn’t really mean it. It’s only as a mother that she takes sheer delight: she dotes on her younger athlete son Brick, her “precious baby”, and can’t help loving him because he’s so much like his daddy. She hopes he will carry on the family line after Big Daddy is gone, with a grandson who’s very much in the Pollitt mould. But in doing so, she totally puts her firstborn, the embittered lawyer Gooper, in the shadows, ramping up the existing surfeit of family tension to explosive levels.