“There was an electric current that ran between us,” says singer Jonatha Brooke at the beginning of “My Mother Has 4 Noses,” referring to herself and to the title character of her solo piece, poet Darren Stone.
Shifting fluidly between songs and stories, “My Mother Has 4 Noses” is generous almost to a fault. We don’t learn much about Brooke, whose relentless cheer sometimes feels like a mask. But the tender and surprisingly funny musical shows her late mother clearly.
That’s literally true, since Brooke displays several slides of her expressive mom, whose four (prosthetic) noses are the result of cancer allowed to go unchecked because of her Christian Science faith. And it’s figuratively true, because a sharp picture of Stone comes into focus through Brooke’s guitar- and piano-based songs and through numerous excerpts from Stone’s concise and lucid poems.
Early in the evening, it emerges that Stone gave the great gift of telling her daughter that everything is material for art (“Are you getting this down?” she asks, and I kept wondering if she knew Nora Ephron’s mom, who similarly insisted, “Everything is copy.”). Brooke repays the gift by capturing her mother, noses and all. The show feels almost like a posthumous collaboration between the woman who supplied the material and the woman who figured out how to share that material with others.
It’s heavy material, but it’s handled with a light touch. There’s an extended sequence about issues around poop, for instance, as Stone careens into dementia, and there’s a grim peek into a Christian Science independent living facility, where everyone seems to have some appalling, untreated illness. Flipping gracefully between heartache and hilarity (“Dementia gave mom such refreshing candor!”), “My Mother Has 4 Noses” reminded me of the brilliant and equally un-self-pitying Julia Sweeney solo show about her and her brother’s cancer, “God Said ‘Ha!,’ ” except the Sweeney show didn’t have the benefit of Brooke’s powerful voice.
Warm and yearning, Brooke’s voice functions as a sort of inner monologue — it’s where she reveals the thoughts she doesn’t want to burden others with — and the songs are essential to the show because their raw emotions offset the quirky mother/daughter tales. There’s a layer of remove to Brooke’s storytelling, but that’s not the case with her songs, particularly the climactic and devastating “Time,” in which a daughter who thought she’d been preparing for her mother’s death realizes that she is not ready at all.
The dead, of course, do not leave us, and Brooke has found an excellent way to make that point: She closes “My Mother Has 4 Noses” with one of her mom’s poems, set to music in a lasting, living mother/daughter collaboration.