Chicago — The last show Dallas ex-pat and solo performer John Michael Colgin (just “John Michael” professionally) presented in Chicago, Dementia Me, used his experiences as an aide in a home for senile adults as a springboard into the deep end of loss.
In Meatball Séance, his latest offering—literally—to the gods and ghosts of memory, Colgin attempts to summon the spirit of his dead mother, Elizabeth. And what better way to connect than through her favorite recipe for meatballs?
Dressed in underwear and a striped ruffled apron with matching neon socks, Colgin lets us know early that he’s going to be choosing volunteers as spiritual sous chefs for the evening. But while they’re chopping fennel and garlic, they’re also standing in as a series of boyfriends—each of whom Colgin wishes had known his mom, and each of whom disappoints him in some way.
That’s the essential thread connecting the disparate and often-hilarious stories here, and it speaks to an aspect of grief too often ignored: we grieve not just for the person we lost and all that they might have done, but for their role as witnesses in our own lives. At the same time, no one wants to be the permanent mourner at the party—or the gay bar.
How do we talk about someone we’ve lost without bringing down the room? That’s what Colgin wrestles with in this often-beguiling 65-minute show, directed by Janet Howe of Chicago’s (re)discover theatre. The ingredients he puts into his mother’s meatballs (the recipe is tacked up on the back wall of the stage) all serve as reminders of greater emotional truths about our need to connect with and nourish each other. Fennel, he observes, is “bitter by itself, but with everything else, it’s perfect.” As he tears and pounds bread into crumbs, he reminds us “For something to hold everything else together, it has to be torn apart.” He literally creates a “binding circle” with the crumbs. (The stage floor in Mary's Attic, where the show runs on Thursdays through April 6, gets pretty messy by the end of the show.)
Those kinds of metaphors could all get precious in a hurry. But as he did in Dementia Me, Colgin shows himself to be a dab hand at putting himself on the hook for his own failings and lies. For example, he claims to have seduced one boyfriend by taking him to the shores of Lake Michigan to see the astronomical phenomenon known as “Orion’s Saga”—which of course doesn’t exist.
His raw and sometimes-confused attempts to connect with lovers also go back to the death of his mom. As he tells us, “She was the best wingman I ever had,” and his memories of his “gypsy” mom swirling around the kitchen to Fleetwood Mac bring a lump to the throat.
Spoiler alert: the séance doesn’t work as planned. But what Colgin offers up (in addition to free drinks for the plucky audience volunteers) is a goofy and heartfelt snapshot of both his mom and his own process for bringing her back to life for those who never knew her. Sometimes, the grieving process does depend upon the kindness of strangers. And a really good recipe for meatballs.
» Kerry Reid is a Chicago-based freelance writer