A Gray Matter: Rumstick Road

04/23/2014 4:00 AM |

Rumstick Road
Directed by Elizabeth LeCompte and Ken Kobland

Spalding Gray began to emerge as a writer-performer of his own material in the late 1970s with the Wooster Group theater troupe. Many of these performances weren’t professionally recorded like Swimming to Cambodia, directed by Jonathan Demme, or Gray’s Anatomy, directed by Steven Soderbergh. Using archival footage and some short recreations, the Wooster Group has put together a film version of one of Gray’s earliest pieces, Rumstick Road, based on the life and suicide of his mother, Margaret.

It’s rough going at first. The early sections are so grainy and disorienting that it seems like this might be purely an archival experience of the piece rather than a direct cinematic expression of it. We hear recordings that Gray did with his father and his two grandmothers, and we see a woman continually banging her head forward who seems to represent Gray’s mother; this most likely had more impact in the theater than it does on film. But Rumstick Road gathers force once Gray steps away from the shadows and takes control of the piece with his trademark nervous intensity.

A conversation he has with his mother’s doctor over the phone is surprising because the doctor isn’t the uncaring or out-of-touch bureaucrat we expect him to be. When he tells Gray, in a very tactful way, that he shouldn’t worry too much about inheriting his mother’s mental problems, a sense of decency comes across that brightens the dark tone of the piece. (Gray’s own suicide in 2004 makes this section of the play much sadder than it would have seemed in 1977.) Rumstick Road is unusual because it starts off seeming like the forerunner of all the personal exploitation one-person shows we’ve all suffered through, but actually it preserves the privacy and mystery of his mother as a person by giving us vivid details without ever reducing or over-explaining her.

Opens May 1 at Anthology