In “Knead,” the new one-woman play written and performed by Mary Lynn Owen, the Atlanta actress struggles to elucidate and perfect her late mother’s bread recipe. But in this deeply moving and transformative autobiographical tale, the performer must wrestle with much more than flour, water, salt and yeast.
Alone in the kitchen in the early hours of morning, an insomniac Owen scatters flour on her kitchen counter and dumps out a mixing bowl full of dough that’s been chilling in her refrigerator. Sticking her head back into the fridge to retrieve something she needs, she pulls out a tricycle. And just like that, the memories come tumbling out, and we begin to understand that the material that Owen has been kneading and shaping is a response to love, loss, grief, anger and despair.
Joy of cooking this is not.
Under the comedic veneer, the slinging of flour and the opening and closing of cabinet doors, “Knead” is a bruising confessional from the oldest child of a Cuban mother and a Methodist preacher from Snellville. Though Owen seems to have suffered a good measure of sadness and pain, she refrains from portraying herself as a victim, and by the end of the 80-minute Alliance Theatre world premiere, she finds a glimmer of grace.
Though her mother fashioned herself as a suburban minister’s wife named Dolly Owen, she was born Dahlia Martinez, and in repressing who she really was, something inside her was lost.
But as a youngster, Owen knew exactly where she was going. Proud of her mother’s culture, she decided to cook Cuban flan as a 4-H project, and though her stern abuelita was delighted, her demonstration was not happily received by the judges. Thus at a tender age, Owen came face to face with shame and prejudice born out of ignorance.
Though her mother eventually goes back to college at Georgia State and travels to Spain to study, her life takes a tragic turn. This comes at some emotional cost to Owen. Angry and anguished, she punches the loaf of bread she’s been kneading — a raw and powerful moment that will stay with me for a long time to come.
Though I hesitate to give much more away, as the drama unfolds, Owen will be molded and shaped by other challenges, in the form of personal illness, death and family dysfunction. In real life and in the real time of the play, she chooses to mask, or bandage, the pain by focusing on the comic absurdities of the human condition: her grandmother’s fondness for Robert Goulet; her brother’s pink Cadillac; her green 4-H vest. But she never relies on cheap laughs or sugary sentimentality.
As much as I love this play, I wasn’t quite sure at the beginning where Owen was to going to go with it, or what she had to say, if anything. (Boy, was I wrong.)
To be certain, there are a few bumps and flat moments along the way, but once her path becomes clear, the play becomes a profoundly affecting experience. Interestingly, Owen tells us little about her own husband and children, her brilliant career in Atlanta theater, her teaching at Emory or the quotidian details of her everyday life. Rather, she goes deeper.
Those who have had like experiences may feel the sting of their own memories.
Like the poems of Natasha Trethewey, “Knead” is a meditation on grief that is pernicious and, at times, soul-devouring. How we deal with loneliness is a very personal and intimate exercise.
Owen, for her part, chooses to make, and to break, bread. Her father fills notebooks with lamentations on his lost love, even after remarrying and seeming to accept his fate.
Owen is brave to tell her story. And she is generous, too. At the end of the evening, where others might curl up into a ball, she finds redemption.
The time has come to take the bread out of the oven. She takes a bite, and her eyes sparkle and dance with something that is beyond words. Just for a moment, she savors the fullness of everything that has led her to this moment: the mixing and proofing, the kneading and punching, the shaping and baking.
It tastes good. And that is enough.
Though Dec. 9. 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays-Thursdays and Sundays (no show on Nov. 21 or Nov. 22 because of Thanksgiving; also no show at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 9); 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays; 2:30 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays. $20-$45. Alliance Theatre, Hertz Stage, 1280 Peachtree St. NE, Atlanta. 404-733-5000, alliancetheatre.org/knead.
Bottom line: One part joy, two parts pain.