Dancing the Mommy Dance

Anchorage comedian turns parenting ups and downs into a one-woman musical about motherhood

Posted: Thursday, September 11, 2003

Halfway through "The Mommy Dance," a one-woman musical comedy about motherhood, writer and star Jill Bess finally has to pause.

"I woke up one day and realized that a piece of me was missing," Bess says in a soliloquy while sitting on an oversized couch. "I woke up one day and there was too little of me left."

Her breakdown - a desperate grab at clarity and rest - is one of the rare moments of calm in Bess' 85-minute production, the opening show for Perseverance Theatre's 2003-04 season opener. "The Mommy Dance" premieres Friday, Sept. 12, and closes Sunday, Oct. 5.

The show is a mostly manic, often funny, sometimes tragic and 99 percent autobiographical glimpse at Bess' experiences as a mother, wife and individual. Not much is off limits.

"It gets crazy at my house, and I think it does at most mothers' houses," said Bess, 44, an Anchorage resident. "There's the balance of trying to portray to the audience that it gets frantic at your house, but you also have to find the balance of being relaxed on-stage.

"The Mommy Dance" evolved out of a series of journal writings. Bess wrote the first version in 1993 and 1994, and the show premiered in Anchorage in 1994. Since then, it's gone through almost 10 runs and revisions. On stage, she sings, dances, runs up stairs, jumps off beds, screams, swings, hits a ball with a bat and even gives birth.

Anita Maynard-Losh, the associate artistic director and training and education coordinator at Perseverance, is directing the play. This is the first time Bess has had a director for "The Mommy Dance."

"The hardest thing about this show right now is not improvising," said Bess, a former improvisational comedian with regional personality Mr. Whitekeys at the Fly by Night Club in Anchorage. "The show feels improvisational to me, and Anita doesn't want it to be. She's right. That's the challenge, to keep to the script and to keep it steady and fresh."

Bess' husband, Joe, her 13-year-old son, Kevin, and her 9-year-old daughter, Katie, go by their real names in the play. All three will make the trip from Anchorage to be at Friday night's premiere.

"We're a normal family," Jill said. "The kids have good days and bad days, just as I do and my husband does. Katie likes the play; she's really supportive. Kevin is sort of, 'Gee, Mom, do you have to tell them all of that?' He sort of puts up with it."

"In some aspects, it's almost like her third baby," said Joe, 44, an engineer. "We have the animals, we have our children, we have our house, and then there's Jill's play. There's truth to it, and then there's not. Some of it has nothing to do with our children, but something that happened with other children."

At one point in the play, Jill talks about being a bad mother for feeding Kevin a meal of Cheetos and mineral water. The culprit was actually Joe.

"I was absolutely exhausted, and it was my day to take the weekend shift so Jill could sleep late until 9 a.m.," Joe said. "I could barely move, and she came down and saw me feeding Kevin Cheetos and mineral water and she blew a gasket."

Other scenes from the play are less humorous. Joe still gets emotional every time Jill performs "13 Steps," a piece about child mortality based on the time Kevin fell down a flight of stairs at the Bess home. Kevin was hurt, but ultimately fine.

"I can still remember the very vivid memory of Kevin falling and hearing him and just sprinting out of control after him," Joe said. "Everytime she does that piece, it chokes me up."

"The Mommy Dance" was the first play Jill wrote, but she's acted since she was 8. She grew up performing at the Santa Barbara (Calif.) Youth Theatre, earned a degree in drama from the University of California-Irvine, spent a few years acting in shows in San Diego and Los Angeles and worked her way up the West Coast with commercial and voice-over work.

Jill married Joe in June of 1989. They met when they were 29, though they grew up within 40 miles of each other. They also were born three weeks apart.

"We discovered quickly that our parents lived in the valley within five miles of each other," Joe said. "That's destiny right there."

When Jill began writing the journal entries that evolved into "The Mommy Dance," Kevin was 3, and Jill was pregnant with Katie.

"I was home with my kids, and I couldn't make time to be away," Jill said. "They were too young for me to be out in the theater. I was starting to go a little crazy, so I just started writing."

"Mammary Song" came to her in a dream. She woke up and scribbled the lyrics into her notebook. She wrote the "Gross Song," a song about young Kevin vomiting in her face, in the shower, the day after young Kevin vomited in her face. "Master Kevin" came to her in a fit of sleepless frustration, after she spent the night trying to make him go to bed. A friend, Darcy McMullen Kreger, arranged the songs.

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