Sisters battle it out in 'Skirmishes'
by Jack Viertel,
Herald theater critic
When the lights come up on the musty Liverpool bed
chamber that is the setting for Catherine Hayes' "Skirmishes," the
hostility flashing through the room is palpable — although no one is
moving. Jean (Tyne Daly) is sitting in a chair, disheveled, exhausted
and silent. Her dying mother (Sylvia Meredith) is asleep in bed or,
for all we know, already dead. Yet what takes place is a silence so
full of implied betrayals, of lost opportunities and of futile
expectations that we can feel it. When Jean's sister Rita (Carolyn
Seymour) enters, the energy redoubles. Before a single word is spoken,
we become terribly afraid of what these people will do to each other
"Skirmishes" charts the battle of two sisters who
are living moment-by-moment at the bedside of a woman who has been
everything to them and is about to be nothing. True, they are married,
and one of them has children, but at the deathbed of a parent, those
can seem like recent, even trivial developments. Mother has shaped
their characters, mother, by preferring one, and then rejecting her,
has laid out a battlefield of anger and recrimination between them
that has extrapolated through the years as their own characters have
taken hold. Mother is no longer responsible, of course. Life has dealt
each sister enough disappointments so that things have gone well
beyond blaming mother: "By the time "Skirmishes" has run its grim,
intricate course, Rita and Jean have been forced to confront the fact
that mother isn't the answer for their anger any more — and that her
death won't make that anger vanish.
Hayes has written an absorbing, sometimes
lacerating drama that is -- strangely, given its subject matter —
never moving, and only rarely emotionally involving. That's only
partially a criticism, for "Skirmishes" is an expertly observed
analysis of one family's poisons interacting. Unlike Marsha Norman's
Pulitzer Prize-winning and somewhat similar " 'night Mother," it never
breaks your heart -- but it is just as relentless and just as
And it has the good fortune to be receiving a
sensitive reading here, anchored by Tyne Daly's stunning portrayal of
Jean, the ungainly, hostile sister who has stayed home and cared for
mother over the years. It is Daly who makes the opening moments of
"Skirmishes" bristle, with her eyes alternating between the downcast
look of defeat and the hard glare of defiance. Looking ungainly and
plain in an old pair of trousers and an oversize cardigan, the actress
seems to have collected the misery of this room inside herself, and to
be spitting it out in bits and pieces. When she cracks, it is
grudgingly, without a hint of willingness to show her emotional side.
Tears for her are a failure of will, not a release. It's a performance
of sustained bravery and sensational control — a better one will be
hard to find for seasons to come.
As her more civilized, more cowardly sister Rita,
Carolyn Seymour holds her own. Rita is a less perfectly observed role,
a somewhat too-typical wife and mother whose loyalty to her children
and husband are, we know well in advance, going to prove to be masks
of a sort. Seymour keeps up the illusion of placidity expertly, and
comes undone pitiably. Oddly, although she is the less-sympathetic of
the two characters, it is her for whom we feel whatever emotional
twinges the playwright eventually allows us.
Sylvia Meredith is a tremendous presence as the
sleeping mother. Although she has only a few lines - and those are all
but incoherent — the sudden coming alive of her face, the blinding
accusation and piercing lack of charity in her eyes is actually
terrifying. It's a performance that makes much out of almost nothing.
Director Sam Weisman has meshed these three actors
into a seamless ensemble, and given the action a hard-edged,
unsentimental tone. There are a few extraneous mannerisms and some of
the long pauses go on so long that we are jettisoned right out of the
playwright's world and back into our own (sitting in the theater,
waiting for an entrance). But despite these lapses and the generally
monochromatic pace that he has imposed on the evening, "Skirmishes"
conveys a consistent atmosphere, and a bleakness of tone for which the
director must in some measure take credit. The room itself is a
triumph of grim color and threadbare fabric (the redoubtable Vicki
Baral and Gerry Hariton have provided the setting and woeful shut-in
lighting to match) and the drama that is played out there is equally
dark, brutal and unrelenting. "Skirmishes" may fail to ignite the
emotions, but it keeps rubbing our noses in the facts of family
failure in a way that is as fascinating as it is repugnant. And if one
has any doubts about the material, Daly's performance all but
eradicates them. The opportunity of seeing this actress in the
intimate surroundings of the Matrix Theatre pretty much outweighs any
Daily Breeze, Sunday, May 29, 1983
'Skirmishes' is serious business
by Sanra Krieswirth, Entertainment writer
Catharine Hayes' British drama 'Skirmishes" at the
Matrix Theater in West Hollywood is a slow study of anger, hostility
It's a hurling back and forth of accusations by two
daughters who sit by the bedside of their dying mother.
And although the show only lasts 90 minutes, much
of it is filled with bitter silence. When that silence is broken, the
dialogue is acerbic and caustic.
Produced by Joseph Stern's Actors For Themselves
and directed by Sam Weisman, the drama stars Tyne Daly in a masterful
performance aided ably by Carolyn Seymour and Sylvia Meredith.
"Skirmishes'' is the cynical story of two sisters
and their relationship to their mother and each other. It's also an
honest, but often uncomfortable look at how differently the sisters
wait for their mother to die. And what laughs there are, come out of
the side of your mouth.
Tyne Daly is Jean, the feisty one — the sister
who's been at the bedside constantly. She made the decision years
earlier that she and her husband would live in her mother's house. The
inference is she did it to inherit the house. Yet she blames her
mother and sister for trapping her. The fact is she could have left at
any time, and she could have hired a nurse to care for her mother.
Carolyn Seymour is Rita — the one her mother
prefers. But she ran away with a married man and virtually never
looked back. She may be forceful and independent in her own home, but
back at this one, she's no match for Jean. Her only effective method
of attacking Jean is through her inability to have children. Jean has
been going to fertility clinics for years to combat her "egg-lessness."
Rita never had any trouble.
The contrasts continue. Jean looks disheveled.
Who's she got to dress up for? Her husband's away on business. He's
not much interested in her anyway. And people stopped coming to the
house to see her mother long ago. So she wears baggy pants and a
non-descript cardigan. And for entertainment, she eats a lot to
interrupt the incredible boredom.
Rita is impeccably groomed. But she's choking on
the silence. But Jean seems to thrives in her own kind of misery,
sitting in a worn, stuffed chair in a cloud of her own cigarette
smoke. She sneers looking straight ahead — hardly ever looking
directly at her sister.
And all the time, the mother (Sylvia Meredith) lies
there, her skin so white, it's almost transparent She occasionally
opens her eyes and screams out Rita's name, at the same time fighting
the uncontrollable; twitching of her right arm.
It all sounds depressing, and it is. But somehow
director Weisman keeps our attention because we're waiting for
something to happen in this house — something more than just the
mother dying. So we watch and listen, rather than feel. Ironically,
the play is almost stronger in its silence, than in its dialogue.
The only time Rita is left alone in the room with
her mother, she sits there waiting for her to wake up. When she
doesn't and there's absolutely nothing to do, she begins to inspect
her surroundings. She stares at the bottles on the dresser, picks up a
photograph and opens a small box. Eventually she sits in Jean's chair
immediately sinking into it just like her sister. The scene takes
about about 10 minutes, but it feels like hours. The feeling of the
monotony is vivid.
As Ms. Hayes' writes, "There's no end to this
silence. It hammers you down." And when Jean makes eye contact with
her mother, that gesture says more than all the shouting that went
Yes, "Skirmishes" is hard to take, but not
because of its performances, especially Ms. Daly's. She brings detail
to any character she plays. When she scratches her hands irritated by
the soap she uses to wash her mother's sheets, you can feel the
rawness. And; when she sits in that, old chair, it becomes an
extension of her body.
Ms. Seymour is a good contrast to Ms. Daly, and Ms.
Meredith exudes tremendous power as she waits to die.
Gerry Hariton and Vicki Baral have captured the
gloom and mustiness of the dying woman's bedroom with their sets and
lights. Costumes are by Marianna Elliott.
Drama-Logue, June 16-22, 1983
Minor 'Skirmishes' in a Major Drama
A Four-Handed Juggling Act at the Matrix
by T.H. McCulloh
In a dim and forbidding bedroom in an old house in
Liverpool an aged woman lies silently, eyes closed, waiting to slip
away from this life. Her guardian, daughter Jean, stares absently into
space until she is jolted into awareness by the arrival of sister
"Any change?" asks Rita.
Jean's eyes flash with recognition but there is a
wry wariness as she stretches her composure to include the errant
Rita. "She's gone out for a bag of chips," she barks.
Catherine Hayes' hour-and-a-half sojourn with the
sisters and their dying mother, now playing at the Matrix Theatre, is
most definitely not a play about death. It is a play about survival.
And it is riddled with that odd humor with which all people defend
themselves in catastrophe.
One of the definitions of the word "skirmish" is
"contest," and Skirmishes most certainly is a contest of wills
among three women. The three actresses who engage in these skirmishes
engage in a different kind of heart-to-heart with their director Sam
Weisman and Drama-Loguc in their dressing room before a recent
performance. There is that same locker room badinage as between boxers
before they go out to pummel one another.
Tyne Daly, who wrenches the soul out of put-upon
sister Jean and lays it before her audience, smiles, "They've told us
the trouble with this play is that we like each other too well to play
these two broads." She lightly tosses a crumpled tissue into a
shopping bag beside Carolyn Seymour, the coathanger-in-the-blouse
Seymour tilts her head curiously. "Why did you
throw that in my makeup kit?"
"I thought it was the garbahge." Sylvia
Meredith pats her face with a sponge and watches with twinkling eyes;
eyes that become steel and anger as the suffering mother.
"The thing I like about the play," says Seymour,
"is that when I first read it I found it funny enough to be valuable.
Having been in that situation myself with various members of my family
dying within the home there are always moments of extreme humor. And
it's not hysterical humor. It's genuine. But there's absolutely no
communication between any of them; then suddenly that one moment when
Jean and I look as though we're going to make it and have a
relationship is blown by mother's interruption. It's just agonizing.
I like that aspect; the play's a three-hander and I couldn't think of
a better person to do it with. Tyne got me going with it."
"So it's my fault."
Tyne Daly and Sylvia Merdith were the first choices
for their roles but "we auditioned for Carolyn's part," Weisman says.
"She beat out several heavyweight actresses."
Daly whips out. "Does that mean she was thinner
Actually, producer Joe Stern had seen the play and
asked Weisman to direct it for the Matrix. "It's difficult," the
director admits. "It's the most difficult play I've ever been involved
with as an actor or director, I thought the only way to make
the play work was to go for an hour-and-a-half of absolute reality.
There's nothing imposed upon, it. The thing people get involved in,
the red herring about the play, is that it's not about death.
Because it's not, I think the people who don't get it insist
upon thinking about it that way."
Seymour squints into her mirror as she applies an
eye line. "Audiences love the fact that they're drawn into that room."
"The play affords an opportunity," Daly adds, "for
the audience to just observe these three human beings in this space of
time which is exactly the amount of time it takes everything to
happen. There's no relief in this play. That's part of its purpose.
It's very important to the telling of the story that all the people in
the room going through the play, the players and the people witnessing
it, take this trip of time. It's one of the interesting things about
being in the theatre.
There is one long moment when Jean leaves the room
to fix something to eat. Rita, for the first time is left alone with
her mother. In approximately the time it takes to prepare a quick
breakfast Rita has to acquaint herself with the world in which Jean
has been living for the years of her mother's illness.
"It's amazing, doing that moment," Seymour
explains. "The commitment to really being focused and in that room at
that time has to be really heightened because I have nothing else to
play off except the energy I give."
Daly agrees. "It takes an enormous amount of
concentration to be alone in that room with people looking at you, the
building of the fourth wall and the making of that place as a very
private place, particularly those times when one of the sisters is out
of the room. It's a very interesting thing for an actress to do. I've
had a lot of fun with it."
Leaning back in her chair limply, Seymour sighs. "I
have worked hard to be so simple. All she can do is react. She doesn't
have an original thought in her body, this woman. It's been difficult
to get out of my own way and shut up and listen and react to that.
I've learned an enormous amount doing this play."
Skirmishes is an actor's play. Well, maybe a
director's play. Daly holds up a hand at the categorizing. "Yes, the
play is an interesting play for actors but you need a very strong
hand, which is precisely what we had with Sam, to let the story go off
the way it goes. You do the play right and the work of the writer is
served by the director and, on another level, served by the actors and
it all happens. We're making a balance. We're doing a juggling act in
serving the play. For instance my impulse to begin with was just to
lay it all onto Rita. Sam had to guide me away from looking at her
because Jean is someone who is dying to talk to anybody.
But she's so angry the minute there's anybody to talk to she's
constipated with rage. It's been a very interesting trip."
Weisman's interest in the play was piqued by the
opening lines: "Any change?" "She's gone out for a bag of chips."
"I thought any play that began that way, there's
got to be something to it. I thought it was a great acting play and I
like to do acting plays. That's where my strength is."
"It's almost unactable, of course," Daly laughs.
"That's true. But it plays better than it reads and
the minute I read it I knew I wanted to do it."
So it is an actor's play and a director's
play. It is also an audience play, providing the catharsis which all
theatre is supposed to be about. We know that Rita and Jean will
survive because they are real people dealing with real problems. And
the religious event, which theatre is often called, occurs in
"All good plays," Tyne Daly mumbles as she slowly
pulls on one of the newly-laundered tatty socks which hang limply
about Jean's ankles, "are about the mysteries, the big stuff, right?
Birth and death and relationships on some level or another. All
good plays are about that. I like it because it's beautifully written.
It's wrought with a lot of care. The balance point of humor is really
"And we have this great ensemble feeling," Seymour
enthuses, "which is lovely."
Truly an ensemble piece, Skirmishes forces
the actresses to dig deeply. Sylvia Meredith, who spends most of the
evening asleep in a most difficult assignment, says, "I had a very
hard time finding out what the old lady was really about." But the
characterization is fully realized, helped perhaps by the vibrations
she gets from her nightgown. It belonged to Carolyn Seymour's
great-grandmother, Moura, who was mistress to both Maxim Gorky and H.G.
A play about death? Not really. But a difficult
play which must find its audience. It is an important play in the
panoply of theatre growth in Los Angeles and, as Tyne Daly says with a
laugh, "on any given Monday night you can go across town and see
Carolyn in The Ruling Class, you can see me on television in
Cagney and Lacey or on HBO in some picture that's seven or eight
Or you can see their acclaimed performances in
Catherine Hayes' Skirmishes. "Where we are now is
here, telling our stories."
L.A. Times, Thursday, May 5, 1983
'Skirmishes': A Dying Mother's Battle
by Sylvie Drake
Mothers and daughters. Fascinating accomplices or
adversaries or merely competitors, but interesting, always. Marsha
Norman's Pulitzer Prize-winning play "'night, Mother" offers the most
fevered case in point, but a new drama—or at least new to us—is again
about to plunge us into the whole sticky business.
It is British playwright Catherine Hayes'
"Skirmishes," an Actors for Themselves production destined to run in
repertory with producer Joe Stern's distinguished mounting of "Eminent
Domain" at the Matrix. It is officially described as "a drama of two
daughters and their relationship to their dying mother," with the
mother on stage and very much a part of the action.
Sylvia Meredith, recently nominated by the Los
Angeles Drama Critics circle for her performance in "Going to See the
Elephant," tackles that mother, while Carolyn Seymour and Tyne Daly
(everyone's Mary Beth in TV's "Cagney and Lacy") play the two
How does Tyne Daly find time for Equity Waiver?
"Joe Stern came down and seduced me with the play,"
she said Tuesday. "Equity Waiver? What do you mean? I've always done
Equity Waiver. After nine months of having my picture taken, I
couldn't wait to get back on stage. I'm foolishly fond of doing
theater. When I left New York City, I thought I had left theater
forever, but, of course, I hadn't."
Of course, she hadn't. The rushing words tumbled,
one after the other, in that uniquely breathless Daly style:
"I had been approached about doing 'Sister Mary' in
New York, taking over the role, but the dates didn't, work out. So
here I am in this play, in real time. I used to think I knew what it's
about, but I don't know. I'm at that point where I don't understand
anything. I ask myself, what are we doing here? Why am I in it? Who
are these people? It always happens to me about two weeks into
rehearsal. Well, it's about sisters at a very desperate time in their
lives. I hope it's very funny and grueling and strange."
Earlier forays into Equity Waiver aside, Daly also
did a notable run of shows at the Mark Taper and the Forum Lab.
Memorably, she played an 80-year-old matriarch in Harvey Perr's
"Gethsemane Springs," but wives seem to be her specialty—the wife in
"Ashes," with Michael Cristofer playing her husband, and the wife in
Cristofer's own "Black Angel," with its stunning final monologue.
"Another laugh riot," she quipped. "That monologue
was Michael's revenge for his monologue in 'Ashes.' "
Not quite television, is it?
"Whaddayamean? TV's like doing the Play pf the
Week, like stock." This was Mary Beth speaking. "It's a different way
of finding your energy. When I do 'Skirmishes,' I'll be watching my
mother die every night for two months. If I played 'Medea,' I'd be
killing my children every night. But with Mary Beth, I know her in
many different situations. With her brother—that's a new
character—with her husband, I love that relationship with her
"I've done 22 shows. That's probably the longest
time I've worked on any project, including rep. It's a very good job.
I hope it continues. If it doesn't, I hope I'll get another good job.
The real prize is I've gotten to act every day for nine months. Not
many American actors get to do that.
"What could be bad?"
What, indeed. "Skirmishes" opens May 24.
L.A. Times, 1983
Sylvia Meredith Plays it as it Lays in
by Janice Arkatov
It's 8 p.m. center stage at the Matrix Theatre:
time for Sylvia Meredith to go to work. She climbs into the large
wood-frame bed, fluffs up her pillows, pulls up the blankets and
closes her eyes. The play, Catherine Hayes' "Skirmishes," unfolds,
with two sisters (Tyne Daly and Carolyn Seymour) railing at each other
over their elderly mother's deathbed.
Through it all, Meredith lies mute and unmoving
(with the exception of a few twitches, grimaces and one shrieked
line), a hard and bitter object—almost a piece of human scenery. Could
any actress ask for an easier time?
"Oh yes!" gasps the tiny, gray-pigtailed Meredith.
"Let me tell you, lying there is such a trap. I have never kept such
an absolute blank in my entire life—'cause if I even start thinking
about what's happening on the front steps of Melrose, I begin to
float. . . and I mean float. I have to stop myself; I have to
listen all the time.
"In the beginning, our director, Sam Weisman, was
actually thinking of installing an electrical device to prod me if I
fell asleep. I didn't tell him that once during rehearsal I really did
fall asleep. That was quite frightening, 'cause when I woke up, it was
during one of those long silences in the play—and I didn't know where
Keeping awake onstage isn't Meredith's only
theatrical chore. Since last August, she's been performing alternate
nights at Pasadena's De Lacey St. Theatre in "Coming to See the
Elephant"—a role which recently earned her an L.A. Drama Critics'
nomination (and the play a Dramalogue Award).
Of her dual roles in "Elephant" and "Skirmishes",
Meredith says: "It is a bit like doing my own private repertory. But
I've had it worse. Last Christmas time, I was playing at South Coast
Rep in Jim Leonard's The Diviners.' I was driving to Costa Mesa in all
the traffic for rehearsals and then coming back—in all the traffic—to
Pasadena and doing 'Elephant' four times a week. So this is kind of a
"Of course," she continues reflectively, "it is a
little shift of gears. 'Elephant* is a very dramatic role—but I know
her. She's part of me. With 'Skirmishes,' I'm just beginning to
know this old gal.
"At first, on paper, the character was such a bare
skeleton. So I had to create a life outside the script. But now—I'm
really full of her by the time that curtain goes up. I don't know
what's conveyed to the audience, but I'm there and I feel her."
Meredith has been "feeling" characters since age
10, from professional stock performances in her native Minneapolis,
through her teens: joining Chautauqua (a prestigious traveling company
of actors and musicians during the 1920s), and later as a
puppeteer—touring 11 years with the Sue Hastings Marionette Theatre.
At the beginning of World War II, she joined the
U.S. Nurse Cadet Corps. It's one more role than she holds onto today.
"All this time," she explains proudly, "going back
and forth, I maintain a part-time nursing job, working at a home
health agency and supervising the aides. With four hours minimum each
day, it doesn't leave me a lot of time to be bored. My bosses are very
understanding; they know I'm an actress."
Meredith wears the title with relish. After her
early nursing training, she returned to Broadway and regional
theater—playing with Walter Matthau in "Season in the Sun," with Bert
Lahr in "Harvey," and with Zero Mostel in "My Three Angels."
But her 1962 California move segued into social
service work: at a boys' probation camp in the Lakeside Mountains,
then 12 years as a supervising nurse at Juvenile Hall. In 1978 she
retired and returned to the local stage, in her own "Days of the Life
of Queen Victoria." Now she plays it as it comes.
"Well, you certainly can't plan ahead. What I'd
really like to do is take about four months and work on my house; it's
been neglected. When a nice role comes along, I think 'My house
will always be here.' But it's slowly disappearing, 'cause I'm giving
it no time at all."
"It's gotten to the point where utilities that need
to be fixed I don't fix, 'cause I'm embarrassed to have someone come
into the house. And I live in terror that my sister might come
over to visit someday; I just don't want her to open that door!"
All major fears aside, Meredith shows no signs of
regret—or slowing down.
"I would love to do a Shakespeare play , but
there's really almost nothing for an older woman in Shakespeare. The
thing I don't like about the nurse in 'Romeo and Juliet' is that
everyone thinks she's supposed to be funny—and I don't think she's
Neither, of course, is her character in
"Joe Stern (the producer) had seen it performed in
New York, where apparently the woman was an absolute horror. And he
came to me and said, 'I just can't imagine you doing a part like that:
You seem like such a nice lady.'"
Meredith pauses, eyes twinkling. She's pleased with
the compliment, but that's not where it ends.
"Well—I didn't say this to him—I am a nice
lady. But I'm also an actress!" It's one job Sylvia Meredith won't
fall asleep on.
Drama-Logue, June 9-15, 1983
Joe Stern Offers Free Tickets to 'Skirmishes'
by Polly Warfield
Joe Stern of the Matrix Theatre and Actors For
Themselves is offering a "free ticket" rush for the balance of the
Skirmishes performances at the Matrix. One hour before the 8
pm curtain, all unsold seats will be given away free at the box office
to first comers. Paid reserved seating is still in effect and
donations will be accepted before and after the performance.
Stern explains, "We have an unusual situation with
this play. The ticket-buying public has not responded as we had
hoped and Skirmishes has too much going for it to let it die."
The play by Catherine Hayes offers critically
acclaimed performances by Tyne Daly, Carolyn Seymour and Sylvia
Meredith and is directed by L.A. Drama Critics Circle Award recipient
(for AFT's production of Betrayal last year) Sam Weisman.
Playgoers may present themselves at the box office,
7657 Melrose Ave. in West Hollywood, between 7 and 8 pm, Sunday,
Monday or Tuesday, through July 5.