Often maligned as a singular stereotype in pop culture, in real life the Jewish mother comes in all shapes, sizes and personalities. In Deb Margolin’s new solo work, “8 Stops,” the performance artist copes with her own potentially fatal illness, her son’s terror of death and her sudden impulse to provide succor to a Scottish immigrant boy she meets on the subway. The play opens this week in the West Village and runs until the last weekend of April — just two weeks before Mother’s Day.
Along with Lois Weaver and Peggy Shaw, Margolin founded Split Britches, an influential feminist theater company, in the 1980s. She is the author of many plays, including “O Wholly Night and Other Jewish Solecisms” about a Jewish woman waiting for the Messiah, and “Imagining Madoff” about a fictional encounter between the disgraced investor and his victims. Margolin revised that last one after one of its characters, Elie Wiesel, who lost his life savings to Madoff, threatened a lawsuit.
Directed by Jay Wahl, “8 Stops” takes place in Margolin’s hometown of Montvale, N.J., which she satirizes as a “rich Republican hamlet” in which she feels intensely out of place. One side of the set represents a cozy child’s room dominated by a sheltering tree, while the other side is arranged like a hospital room with an IV pole sprouting intravenous tubes.
In the course of the play, Margolin moves between these two spaces; she begins by describing her son’s panic attacks, in which he imagined being dead but still aware — “eternal consciousness with no company and no sensation.” Then she limns her own struggle with Hodgkin’s lymphoma as a prelude to telling about the boy on the subway whose new stepmother seems hostile to him; the boy, she thinks, looks to Margolin to save him before the ride ends.
In an interview, Margolin told The Jewish Week that despite its ostensibly serious subject, “8 Stops” is a “laugh riot,” a “comedy of the grief of endless compassion.” The playwright noted that she uses theater as a way to “make a random group of people into a generous citizenship of witnesses.”
During the play’s run last April in Philadelphia, Margolin’s own mother passed away. “Now it’s her yahrtzeit,” Margolin said. The play, she reflected, “is a tribute to her, and to motherhood in general — a way of loving that this piece aims to investigate, celebrate, and hold its breath in the middle of.”
“8 Stops” runs through May 2 at the Cherry Lane Theatre, 38 Commerce St. Performance schedule varies; for information and tickets, $59, call OvationTix at (866) 811-4111 or visit cherrylanetheatre.org.