by Lou Mancinelli
How many of us really know our parents? That person your mom was when she met your father. That life your mother led as a teen, a young adult.
In her play “Going Back Naked,” Chestnut Hill playwright Melissa McBain, Ph.D., who requested that her age not be mentioned, delves into just that question via a suitcase of old letters and photographs from the 1930s her mother gave to her before she died.
“Going Back Naked” will be featured in this year’s Philly Fringe Festival Sept. 6 through Sept. 9, 12, 15 and 16 at the century-old Plays and Players Theatre, 1714 Delancey Place, at 6:30 each evening.
During an hour-long solo show, McBain, who taught theater and playwriting for 18 years at Augustana College in Illinois before moving to Chestnut Hill last Labor Day, accesses a part of her mother’s life she never knew until after her mother’s death.
In 2007, at age 90, McBain’s mother suffered a massive stroke the eve of her granddaughter’s wedding in California and died weeks later. In “Going Back Naked,” McBain returns to the room where her mother suffered the stroke.
“While they were all dancing in the high Sierras I was driving down the mountain,” said McBain about the wedding. “I had unfinished business in that room.
“Initially, when I read the letters, seeing her handwriting, her dreams, her fears, it helped me grieve,” she said. “I felt like I wanted to reach through time and space and comfort her.”
In reading the letters, McBain learned she had only really known the story of three-quarters of her mother’s life. She learned that her mother, Ann Fountain, was a childhood piano star from Moorestown, N.J., who at 13 won a prestigious Steinway-Juilliard competition. By age 8 her mother was playing piano on the then-classical AM radio station we know today as 610 WIP sports talk radio.
But when her mother was 20, she enrolled in the Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary, then located in Rittenhouse Square. It was there that she met a young man from North Dakota and fell in love with his charisma and vision. It was then her dream evolved from that of an aspiring concert pianist into the desire to be a missionary and teacher, a woman of the Christian faith. The letters are the result of a correspondence between the two young lovers who were separated due to summer jobs.
“It’s a true story, it’s a love story, it’s an artist’s story,” said McBain. “It’s a Philadelphia story.”
McBain penned “Going Back Naked” in 2008. It was first performed at the Quad City Playwrights Festival in May, 2009, in Iowa. McBain founded that festival after the massacre at Columbine High School in 1999. With the festival she encouraged high school students to “put their rage on the stage.”
Around the same time she performed the play for the first time, McBain, who earned her bachelor’s degree in English during the 1960s from Eastern College on the Main Line, a masters in English from Arizona State (1977) and a Ph.D in theater history with an emphasis on playwriting from Kent State (1991), decided she wanted to become a full-time playwright. She worked out an early retirement and moved to Chestnut Hill, where one of her two sons was living.
Years earlier, McBain, penned her first play, “Daddy’s Little Girl,” as a graduate student. It was first performed in 1985 at the Pittsburgh Playwrights Festival. But course work, a dissertation and a family occupied the majority of her time for the next 15 years. Since then, McBain has also written the plays “Altar Call” and “Yard Sale.”
McBain’s initiation into the Philly Fringe Festival came after an event last year at the Plays and Players playhouse hosted by the Philadelphia Dramatists Center. That’s when McBain participated in a sort of speed-dating event between playwrights and directors and met Jane Stojak. The two clicked right away.
Stojak, who lived in Chestnut Hill during the 1990s and served on the board of the Chestnut Hill Historical Society, used to own Triangle Theater at Fourth and Girard Streets, located on the fringe of Northern Liberties. During its seven-year run from 2001 to 2008, Stojak hosted and directed numerous Fringe Festival productions.
“I was intrigued by the story of this feisty woman,” Stojak said about McBain’s mother after reading the “Going Back Naked” script.
Like how after her days as a childhood star pianist, McBain’s mother put that behind her and moved to Depression-era Louisiana by herself to sell Bibles door-to-door.
“It was beautifully written,” said Stojak, “just one interesting incident after another.”
Moreover, the story caused Stojak to think about her own mother, something McBain hopes is a reaction her audience will experience at the Fringe Festival as well.
“It makes me feel in some ways regretful about my own mother,” said Stojak. “There are lots of things she could have done but was too poor to do… It makes me want to ask questions about my mother. There are so many things you don’t know about your parents.
“I’ve been telling [Melissa] that anyone can read the script or the letters,” Stojak said about the upcoming performance. “But that’s not why the audience is coming to the performance. They are there because they want to be in the room the first time you read the letters… They want to get a sense of how in love her mother was.”
In order to participate in this year’s Fringe Festival, McBain and Stojak raised $2500 through a Kickstarter campaign to help cover production costs. Kickstarter is a modern day pass-the-hat-after the performance-type program, only the hat is passed before anything happens. It’s an online fundraising platform where artists, teachers, entrepreneurs, journalists and more can raise funds for specific projects.
Since moving to Chestnut Hill, McBain said she has participated in numerous community events like the Black and White Gala and the Holiday Tour. She said she often walks her dog Hamlet on the Avenue, where she runs into neighbors’ dogs, Dickens and Gatsby.
“I always joke that Hamlet is on the Avenue with Dickens and Gatsby,” she said.
As for her performance, “I want the audience to be moved by mother’s music and courage. And how she managed to live with hope during the Depression. I hope they think about their own parents’ dreams. What did they dream of as young men and women?”