Theater Review: ‘The Silver Cord’

Too much mother’s love
July 4, 2013 6:27 am Last Updated: July 4, 2013 11:37 am

NEW YORK—The Peccadillo Theater Company offers a revival of Sidney Howard’s 1926 work “The Silver Cord,” a play that gives the idea of mother’s love a bad name due to its exploring an obsessive and smothering psyche. Sadly, something critical is lost in the presentation.

In a setting suggesting New England, in an opulent but somewhat decaying home, longtime widow Mrs. Phelps (Dale Carman) and her younger son, Robert (Wilson Bridges), await the arrival of Robert’s older brother, David (Thomas Matthew Kelley). David returns after two years abroad and his recent marriage to Christina (Victoria Mack).

Meanwhile, Robert is making plans to wed his fiancée Hester (Caroline Kaplan). Mother Phelps, however, is unhappy with the marital plans of her sons, and during the next 24 hours or so, as all gather together, things go from frostily cordial to downright uncomfortable.

The older woman drops verbal digs and snide remarks with the precision of a surgical knife thrust. They send Hester into the throes of panic, while making it perfectly clear to Christina that no woman anywhere is good enough for either of her boys. None can measure up to their mother.

What’s shocking is not so much how Mrs. Phelps runs her sons’ lives so completely, but rather how Robert and David so willingly tie themselves to her apron strings.

But Mrs. Phelps’s desires are more than maternal. She is so obsessed with keeping her two boys as children that she will not allow them to emotionally grow or develop. Her interactions between them are not at all healthy and verge on incest, often quite creepy.

Her intentions also leave no room for Christina or Hester, whom she sees as interlopers in her private domain.

Unfortunately, Peccadillo director Dan Wackerman doesn’t seem to know whether to stage the piece as a drama, a black comedy, a melodrama, or something in between. The show meanders through several of these genres.

Because of this clear lack of direction, all of the characters seem to operate on only one level, and it subsequently becomes hard to care about what happens to them.

Carman does do a good job as Mrs. Phelps, a sweet old lady who in actuality is a determined and conniving woman. She uses quiet insinuations, half-truths, and outright lies to manipulate situations to her advantage. The actor fits the role well enough, so the fact that the part is being played by a man raises few eyebrows.

Kelley is fine as the stalwart David, a man desperately trying to make both his wife and mother happy, while Bridges brings across the weaker and more effeminate Robert, a fellow with a taste for interior decorating. Each brother thinks they are their mother’s favorite, as she has often told them both.

The problem is that neither son is given the chance to have a fully developed personality, thus none of the choices they ultimately make seem all that believable. We see how dependent on their mother the two have become, but do not see what makes the brothers tick in the first place, thus it’s hard to get emotionally involved in their actions and decisions.

Mack and Kaplan come off better as their characters are initially strangers to the brothers’ home environment and, like the audience, are rather startled to learn just what’s going on.

Mack is good as Christina, a woman determined to stand by her husband and help him if she can, but unwilling to sacrifice her entire identity to do so.

Kaplan works well as the more flighty Hester, a person always eager to please—at least until she realizes the true danger Mother Phelps presents. This realization leads to a rather striking emotional meltdown.

Harry Feiner’s set is excellent. It offers a nicely preserved gentility from about 30 years before the time the play takes place. The set is sprinkled with hints of decrepitude, which also helps illustrate the stagnation David, Robert, and their mother inhabit.

Gail Cooper-Hecht’s costumes are also quite good, each matching traits of the different characters, from Robert’s boyish outfits to Hester’s louder garments to Mrs. Phelps’s prim and proper attire.

A work that at its heart shows a family relationship screaming for extensive and extended psychiatric intervention, “The Silver Cord” is a fascinating story. With a better idea of how to present it, the show might have been special indeed.

As it stands now, it’s not all that bad, just not as good as it could have been.

“The Silver Cord”
The Peccadillo Theater Company at Theatre at St. Clement’s
423 West 46th Street
Tickets: 212-352-3101 or visit
Running Time: 2 hours, 15 minutes
Closes: July 14

Judd Hollander is the New York correspondent for the London publication The Stage.