By Cynthia Darling
Victoria Podesta wasn’t meant to be a caregiver. As she and her own sister point out, she doesn’t like to do things for people. “If you had all the daughters in the world to pick from, you might not pick me,” she says. But when her father died, she knew she could not leave her mother, who was suffering from early dementia and late stage chronic heart failure. So, Ms. Podesta took care of her mother, and in doing so, came to share their powerful story through the poignancy and comedy of “The Designated Daughter.”
The show’s strength lies in the line it walks between laugh‐out‑loud humor and a deep current of pain. Several times I found myself laughing‑only to wonder if I should. A funny line was delivered at the end of such terrible news that it was hard to know whether to laugh or suppress it. And that is, I think, precisely Ms. Podesta’s point. It takes a special writer to call forth laughter from the audience even in the face of death and illness and bad luck so horrendous it leaves an eerie quiet.
“The Designated Daughter” packs a punch through Ms. Podesta’s emotional performance as her own mother. Ms. Podesta also plays herself and a cast of minor characters. But it is her mother who is the true star of the show, through Ms. Podesta’s multifaceted evocation of her. She does justice to her mother’s revelations of past harm, recreating her mother’s palpable, uncomfortable pain from earlier moments in life.
Ms. Podesta is skilled at miming the repetition of her mother’s routine, showing how the procedures of caring for her mother amount to a day of crucial mundanity. The mime work is strong as it speeds up, showing how the day takes on an almost manic quality of performing the same actions over and over again. Some of Ms. Podesta’s musings about caring for an aging and sick parent are spot‑on in their urgency. She wonders to herself, “Since these are her last days on earth, couldn’t they be a little happier, a little easier?” Changing her mother’s pee bag, only to spill it all over herself on the night she hosts a Christmas party at her house, becomes one of Ms. Podesta’s deftly handled situations of humanity and humor. Striking moments of poetry abound, as Ms. Podesta describes that her mother’s “hummingbird heart” keeps on beating.
In addition to the touching representation of her mother, Ms. Podesta includes much self‑reflection in her show. Ms. Podesta wears a large splash of red in a wavy shirt that evokes boldness, matching the unflinching honesty that pervades her observations. She confesses to being prone to depression that can sometimes lead to her own, as she puts it, “episodic” expressions of love followed by absence. At another point, a powerful one‑liner lingers in the air: “I still can’t sit with her without being bored.”
A particularly moving scene comes when Ms. Podesta describes decorating a room with family photos for her mother. Ms. Podesta unwittingly revisits childhood memories through these photos, mentioning family abuse and anger that still lingers. And sometimes, as Ms. Podesta illustrates, attempts to address old hurts with her mother lead, quite humanly, nowhere. There is something refreshingly real about the truth that Ms. Podesta communicates: sometimes parents don’t know what to do.
Joyful moments of transcendence rise up out of the pain. Ms. Podesta starts to shop for her mom, who loves clothes. Movie and dessert night, a tradition that starts up when Ms. Podesta’s mom comes to stay with her, becomes absurd in its frequency, yet is one of the rituals Ms. Podesta’s mom loves most.
From time to time, Ms. Podesta’s performance of the mother was overshadowed by her evocation of her mother’s voice. I couldn’t tell if her mother was meant to be seen as imperious and powerful or comic through the deep voice that Ms. Podesta used. Eventually, I stopped wondering about the voice, and Ms. Podesta’s mother took her full, majestic presence as a character of strength and vulnerability.
I would have liked more defined transitions between scenes. A change in the space onstage or an added prop to mark a new setting or time period would allow the individual scenes to be more distinct. This would help create a slower pace for important scenes that come in quick succession.
The ending of the play is truly arresting. Ms. Podesta uses a gentle touch in portraying the end of her mother’s life. As we look on, we are moved and purged by all that Ms. Podesta has gone through. The lights dim, and Ms. Podesta addresses the audience directly, in a dramatic, empathetic gesture, to connect over taking care of aging parents. She reaches out to us, so she will not be alone during this time of losing her parents. But the effect is that we, too, are less alone.
In the end, Ms. Podesta is the daughter designated to tell the story of a family coming together, so that we all might see that it can, quite imperfectly and beautifully, be done.
“The Designated Daughter”
Written and Performed by Victoria Podesta
October 2 at 9 PM
Photo credit: Allison King
2019 United Solo Theatre Festival
410 West 42nd Street
New York City
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CYNTHIA DARLING is a writer and teacher living in Hell’s Kitchen. A writer for NAfME’s Teaching Music magazine for many years, she also wrote for New York Family magazine. She is currently working toward an MFA in Creative Writing with the Bluegrass Writers Studio. Her fiction and nonfiction appear in Louisiana Literature, Schuylkill Valley Journal, and Wanderlust Journal.