When Hume Baugh first put pen to paper on The Girl in the Picture Tries to Hang Up the Phone, he wasn’t intending to write a play. The Toronto-based actor was simply trying to process the grief and confusion brought on by his mother’s death.
“I started writing stuff down because I didn’t know what else to do,” he says. “I also needed to remember what was happening because these were the final days and months of my mother’s life. She would be gone soon, and suddenly every little detail became charged and important and fragile.”
Rather than turn the story into a multicharacter drama, Baugh chose instead to focus on his own experience through the process, turning out a stand-and-deliver autobiographical work. Presented at Rhubarb and Hatch in various incarnations, as well as at a few Ontario fringe festivals, the piece now has its most intimate presentation at Toronto's Videofag.
“One of my goals with this show is to really talk to the audience, not at them,” Baugh says. “I think audiences get talked at way too much. This show really works well in a small environment, which is what’s great about this space.”
Born in the 1920s, Baugh’s mother followed an unusual path for women of her generation. A successful psychologist who also raised six children, she dove into the feminist explosion of the 1970s, hanging with lesbians, reading Gloria Steinem and listening to Helen Reddy. Her death in 2001 was preceded by a drawn-out period of ill health: severe arthritis; multiple cancers in her lungs, brain and spine; as well as the stomach infection that ultimately killed her. She also had a strong penchant for alcohol, which complicated her health problems by making certain treatments impossible.
“I felt that the story of my mother that would be told in the world would be the sanitized one of accomplishments and respect and laudable qualities,” Baugh says. “Leaving out the important parts of her life, like the alcoholism, was a terrible lie. Her positive qualities were never in doubt. But the true story is more complicated and one of opposites and secrets.”
Through a process that began with a deep personal need to creating a finished theatrical work, has Baugh’s relationship to his mother changed?
“It’s confirmed for me how alike we are and how much of her is in me,” he says. “Her DNA, but also her values, her problems, her interests, her contradictions, her dark places. I’m also less angry than I was eight years ago, more able to see my own actions with some critical perspective and hers with more empathy and forgiveness. That’s one of the gifts of growing older, I think.”