Terms of Endearment, the stage play by Dan Gordon, starring Molly Ringwald in the role of Aurora Greenway, is based on the novel by Larry McMurtry and the screenplay by James L. Brooks, who also directed the award-winning film. The American premiere production, directed by Michael Parva at 59E59, is being presented by The Directors Company in association with Invictus Theater Company.
Gordon’s adaptation is reminiscent of the Oscar-winning comedy-drama, which starred Jack Nicholson, Debra Winger, and Shirley MacLaine. The hit movie confronted issues of adultery, sexual relationships for 50-somethings, pain, loss, and the many shades of love that occur during the lives of a mother and daughter whose relationship evolves profoundly. The film’s success partially inspired the McMurtry’s sequel Evening Star and a film of the same title written by Robert Harling. But the sequels never reached the gloss, perfection, and depth of the first iteration of characters: the feisty, forthright and always surprising Aurora Greenway and her intriguing, “push-pull” relationship with her down-to-earth, level-headed daughter Emma Horton.
The play reveals them as we may or may not remember them as they journey through many episodes before Emma contracts cancer and the family experiences tremendous pain, which her immature husband Flap, her older son, and Aurora must work through as they say goodbye forever.
In this thoughtful production director Parva teases out fine performances from the always engaging Molly Ringwald and others in the cast (Jeb Brown as Garrett, Hannah Dunne as Emma, Denver Milord as Flap). They marshal their talents to hit their mark on the comedy and the poignancy, sometimes more strongly than at other times.
The play is introduced by a flashback that symbolizes the relationship Aurora will have with her daughter and also foreshadows the conclusion. A young Aurora at home with her new baby girl is obsessed with crib death. Anxious, ignoring husband Rudyard’s remarks that Emma is in a restful sleep and shouldn’t be disturbed every five minutes, Aurora puts one leg in the crib, then checks to see if Emma is still breathing. Of course she awakens Emma, and the baby wails in terror, unable to return to sleep. Reassured, Aurora saunters away leaving the baby to sort it all out; we see that she has no impulse to pick her daughter up and soothe her back to sleep. She is concerned only about her own fears and once she is placated, she ignores the trouble she created.
The incident is telling. Throughout their relationship, Aurora goads her daughter with the truth of her opinions, attempting to “keep her awake and aware.” But rather than take her mother’s obtrusive counsel, Emma chooses to sort things out for herself, acting more like an adult than Aurora does.
And so goes Aurora’s bond with her daughter throughout the play – Aurora demonstrates pangs of parental anxiety and officiousness, as she did in the microcosm of that instant in Emma’s babyhood. Fifteen years on, on the eve of Emma’s teenage marriage to Flap, Aurora disturbs her celebration with her friend to warn Emma not go through with the wedding. The injunction falls on deaf ears. They marry and as events develop, we see that Aurora’s wisdom was well-founded. We realize the extent Aurora loves Emma, yet she is frustrated because her daughter must make her own choices, no matter how wrong-headed.
With each mother-daughter encounter, we see the strain and the love as their bond evolves. Aurora discusses with Emma her budding sexual relationship with her neighbor, astronaut Garrett, while Emma’s marriage slowly unwinds when both she and Flap have affairs. Aurora and Emma are confidantes and become very close friends though they often disagree.
Throughout, Aurora checks up on Emma daily. She often disturbs her sleep early in the morning with phone calls and if she ruffles Emma, which she usually does, she walks away without providing comfort for her in the aftermath, just as in the prologue. Aurora is the self-centered one who deplores being a grandmother, while Emma totally embraces the role of motherhood, something which we understand Aurora has also done, but in her own way, for she is not the maternal, nurturing, flexible, motherly type.
Gordon has maintained the story’s brilliant dialogue and humorous events: Garrett’s date with Aurora, the scene when Aurora finally decides to go to bed with Garrett and invites him up to see her Renoir, even Emma speaking on the phone with her lover as she does the laundry. If we’ve seen the movie or read the book, we are familiar with the characters and appreciate them. The cast does fine work in maintaining the themes of the film, without drawing down the emotional heavy lifting. What shines throughout is Ringwald’s Aurora as a one-of-a-kind, singular, brave woman and Hannah’s Emma as the adult daughter who understands and appreciates who her mother is despite Aurora’s neediness, insecurity, and emotional dependence. Because of those threads, Emma realizes that her death will be all the more painful for Aurora, as well as for Flap and her children.
The weakest segment of Gordon’s adaptation is with Emma’s relationship with her children, who are not in the play, but were important in the film, especially when they visit Emma in the hospital and she says goodbye. Gordon attempts to get around this by having Emma read letters addressed to the children. This greatly impedes the power and strength of Hannah’s Emma, which does not come through here. The scene when these goodbyes are expressed is the weakest in the production, more a fault of the writing devices used than the portrayals by the actors. As a result, the relationship between Emma and Aurora is spotlighted more in the first act than in the second. It is only when Ringwald’s Aurora is alone onstage speaking her goodbye to Emma after her daughter has died that the full impact of the love between them, and Ringwald’s emotional substance, are revealed. Ringwald strikes gold in these concluding moments.
The production’s staging and design are executed with clever attention to the limitations of the space which serves simultaneously as the various rooms of Aurora’s and Emma’s houses, a restaurant, and Garrett’s yard. The costumes are throwbacks to a time when a diagnosis of cancer was a death sentence, but beautifully appropriate as outfits that Hannah and Aurora, Flap and Garrett would have selected for themselves.
If you adore the book and/or the film, then the play Terms of Endearment will not disappoint, though there are a few uneven moments. Overall, you will be thrilled to see Molly Ringwald in a very fine portrayal of Aurora Greenway and an effective Hannah Dunne as Emma.
Terms of Endearment will be at 59E59 Theaters until December 11. The play has one intermission and is around two hours long. For tickets visit the online box office or call Ticket Central at 212-279-4200.