Dysfunction leads to disaster in Oswald family drama, ‘Mama’s Boy’

Michael Goldsmith plays Lee Harvey Oswald, with Betsy Aidem as his mother, in "Mama's Boy," which is at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick through Nov. 6.

PHOTOS BY T. CHARLES ERICKSON

Michael Goldsmith plays Lee Harvey Oswald, with Betsy Aidem as his mother, in “Mama’s Boy,” which is at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick through Nov. 6.

“Mama’s Boy” is more about the mama than the boy.

The most well known character in the play is Lee Harvey Oswald, but the central character is his mother-from-hell, Marguerite. Does it offer any new insight into one of the most cataclysmic events of the 20th century? Not really. But it does offer a memorable portrait of a monumentally screwed-up family, and the dynamics that may have unhinged Lee so much that he ended up becoming an assassin.

Playwright Rob Urbinati undoubtedly learned what could be learned about these people — it’s not like there’s a shortage of information out there on the Oswalds. But the play is, obviously, not an enactment of what happened leading up to, and following, the assassination of John F. Kennedy, but Urbinati’s best guess at what could have happened.

The play — which is currently at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick, in its New York area premiere — starts with Marguerite (played by Betsy Aidem) speaking to an audience at New York’s Town Hall in 1964, and promising she will tell them the truth about her son. But something seems off: She seems to enjoy the spotlight a little too much for a woman who is semi-famous only because of her tangential connection to a tragedy.

Most of the rest of the play then takes place in flashback. We first see Lee (Michael Goldsmith) and his new Russian wife Marina (Laurel Casillo) in 1962, interacting with Marguerite and Lee’s brother Robert (Miles G. Jackson) after Lee’s trip to Russia, to which he may or may not have temporarily defected. Marguerite prefers to think her son, who served in the Marines, was carrying out some kind of mission for the U.S. government.

Lee and Robert seem to want to keep as much distance as possible from Marguerite, and we soon learn why. She’s relentlessly overbearing, and idealizes Lee to an absurd degree. She’s a widow, and we later learn that Lee reminds her strongly of her late husband. Urbinati hints at an incestual attraction.

Laurel Casillo and Miles G. Jackson play Lee Harvey Oswald's wife, Marina, and brother, Robert, in "Mama's Boy."

Laurel Casillo and Miles G. Jackson play Lee Harvey Oswald’s wife Marina and brother Robert in “Mama’s Boy.”

Things are not going well for Lee, in general. He can’t find a good job, and his marriage starts to unravel. He becomes violent, shockingly hitting Marina. For a year, he stays out of touch with Marguerite; when he’s arrested after the assassination, Marguerite says she’s thankful, because she can resume contact with him.

She visits him in jail, and he tells her “It’s a big mistake.” But, of course, he is killed two days after the assassination by Jack Ruby, so we never hear his explanation. (Urbanati does hint at various possible conspiracies, though). Marguerite, astonishingly, expresses resentment that she’s not treated with the same respect as Jacqueline Kennedy, considering herself “a mother in history.”

Delusions of grandeur? Disassociation from reality? Unpredictability? We see all of them in Marguerite, and we see them, or at least traces of them (buried beneath his poker-faced exterior), in Lee. So he’s not just a mama’s boy, in the traditional sense of the phrase, but a mama’s boy in that he really does take after her in many ways. The only difference is that her actions have disastrous consequences just for her family; his actions impact the world.

David Saint, who is currently celebrating his 20th year as the George Street Playhouse’s artistic director, directs the play, and keeps things pretty simple and straightforward, knowing that Aidem, who has starred in several previous GSP productions, is fully capable of holding our interest as the flamboyantly exasperating Marguerite. Jackson, who was excellent in the title role of “My Name Is Asher Lev” in the theater’s last season, is very good here, too, as are Goldsmith and Casillo.

But it’s Aidem’s Marguerite who is the unstoppable force of nature in the center of this universe. Which is just the way that real Marguerite — assuming Urbinati got her right — would have wanted to be portrayed.

“Mama’s Boy” will be at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick through Nov. 6; visit georgestreetplayhouse.org.

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