Index to Idioms
nytheatre.com review by Loren Noveck
April 3, 2005
The subtitle of Deb Margolin’s solo performance piece Index to Idioms is “A Performance Novel,” and it’s a very apt description of the piece, which is an elusive piece of theatre: sometimes the play feels like a poetry reading, sometimes like hearing your favorite book read out loud by your favorite storyteller, sometimes like eavesdropping on a slightly-too-intimate confession by a stranger. There are many times, in other words, where it doesn’t feel like a play at all—but in an intriguing, beautifully written, and emotionally resonant way.
The play is composed of thirteen segments—chapters, if you will—each a riff on an English-language commonplace in the form of a story from a mother’s life. Some of the stories describe moments of extraordinary significance—the birth of her first child (under the idiom “cut it out”), her first meeting with the man who would become her husband (“rub someone the wrong way”)—and some of them crystallize a particular small moment—an encounter with a suburban neighbor in the grocery store (“come alive”), her daughter’s nursery-school holiday play (“know one’s own mind”). Part of the pleasure of watching the piece, in fact, is in the little light bulbs that go off when you find yourself able to follow the train of thought—often an extremely concrete or literal one—that led from the idiom (flashed on a slide at the beginning and end of each scene) to the story. But even the small moments become the occasion for luminous flashes of insight and wryly sharp observations of the mother’s family, colleagues, and neighbors.
The writing often feels like narrative prose, rather than dramatic monologue—it’s thick with precise, layered adjectives and bristling with crystalline description and there were times when I wished I were reading rather than hearing it so that I could linger over a particular turn of phrase. And yet the joy Margolin takes in the language and in sharing the stories with us, and the transcendence of the emotions summoned by the play, make it inherently and intensely dramatic.
Part of what makes the play work off the page is Margolin’s performance as the play’s single character. This suburban mother of two children who has survived cancer and is struggling intermittently to jump-start her writing career shares many autobiographical details with Margolin, but nonetheless feels distinctly fictional. The slightly objective quality of the writing helps in this—there’s a formality of sentence structure and pacing that creates a distance between performer and character, or writer and teller. Margolin tells each of the stories as if they’re new to her, as if she’s wrestling with the language and making the emotional discoveries along with the audience.
Director Merri Ann Milwe has wisely kept the staging simple, letting the language stand on its own merits, and allowing Margolin to engage the audience in a direct way. The only real visual elements are the slides, which add some color and mood, but seem almost incidental (though it’s nice to see the idioms opening and closing each scene).
Ultimately, I think the experience of this show is best summed up by Margolin herself, in a passage prefacing her description of her child’s somewhat anarchic performance as a penguin in the nursery-school play: “I am brought to tears by even the smallest child or the oldest lady who dares in all generosity to take the stage and hold the light on her body, who has at once the hubris and the humility to offer herself to me, to my judgment and delectation, in that way.” What makes Index to Idioms special is Margolin’s generosity as a writer and performer, and her humility before the transcendent moments to be found in the most ordinary places—in the cliches we use without thinking every day.