Vicki Wangberg, one of the repertory actors for Saaren's Productions, was the logical choice to play the mother in the current production, "Ruby Lips Above the Water." Her personal experience as the mother of a son with a developmental disability adds another dimension to the personality of Ruby's brittle mother, Pearl.
"The play is so rich and layered," said Wangberg. "Because of my life experience, I can add more to the story line of having a child with developmental disabilities. This character for me is just a little speck of what my life would have been like if my son had been born 20 years earlier. When there weren't the services that are available today."
The playwright Steve Saari also had firsthand experience with a brother who had Down Syndrome.
"My older brother Jamie had Down Syndrome and he was born at a time when they advised parents to institutionalize children with Downs," said Saari. "My parents went to visit a state school in Grafton and decided that they couldn't put him there. There's a lot of my mother in the character Pearl: strong, stoic, and she loved my brother fiercely. There are lines in the play that reflected my mother's drive to get the best for my brother that she could. She even went to the state capitol and worked to let these children stay in school until they are 21."
The genesis of the play dates back to a conversation Saari overheard at a Perkins in Park Rapids. A group of women were eating and having small talk and only interrupted their conversation to correct the actions of a young woman with developmental disabilities. Saari could see that the young woman was shy and did not talk much and that they spoke to her in reprimands. Conversation that did not sound or look like the way his family treated his bother Jamie.
Saari's play is set in 1987 and the four women care for each other in a way that only the strong bonds of longtime friendships with its good and bad times can evolve. And they all dearly love and cherish Ruby. Melva and Irene speak in the bickering banter of two longtime friends which adds comedic relief to off-set dark moments in the dialogue. The women meet daily at Jo's café for breakfast. Pearl and her daughter Ruby are also regulars. The four women talk with each other while Ruby sits off to the side, only speaking when asked a direct question like "Ruby, would you like a cup of coffee?" Of course, Pearl answers for her daughter and says Ruby does not like coffee but Ruby objects and says that she has coffee with a brownie at church. Pearl is frustrated by being challenged but the other women again see how a mother's love can be misdirected.
"You drag Ruby along like some portable cross," Melva says to Pearl, starting a conversation about motherhood and how Pearl is the only one who knows what's best for Ruby. "Life is not fair, says Pearl, and having a child like Ruby is not fair!"
"I am so blessed to have David and being his mother is so satisfying," said Wangberg in a statement so different that the feelings of her character Pearl. "My 10-year-old son would often say that David made the family laugh the hardest and was also the most frustrating one. That was a pretty accurate statement about his three year old brother."
In the play, Ruby is 27 years old and she wants to be normal. She wants her hair to be long and blow in the wind like other girls. She sits out on the highway and watches the cars go by and waves at the babies. She craves the same things in life that other young women have like marriage, a family and children. But her mother Pearl has worked hard at keeping Ruby a prepubescent child in dress and attitude. Jo's boyfriend Marshall is the only one who will touch upon the sensitive areas of growing up and having physical yearnings much as a father would do for his daughter. Marshall is the only person who treats Ruby with respect and in turn expects her to function to the best of her ability.
Wangberg's son David's life is so different than was happening years ago. He works four hours a day, five days a week at Raphael's Bakery.
"They hired him just like anyone else," said Wangberg. "He gets a paycheck like everyone working there. This year he bought himself a hockey ticket with the money he made. What David got in this school district was wonderful. I feel so blessed to live here with what this community does to support him. As his mother, I see how other people look out for him. I believe that he gets a lot here that he wouldn't get someplace else. David also speaks of a desire to get married and have children just like anyone else but he knows that is not a life option for him at this time. His dreams for a fulfilling future are just like any other normal young man."
Wangberg is the coordinator for the Bemidji School District's Early Childhood and Family Education program (ECFE). More comments from the cast about the play can be seen at Bemidji Arts blog on the home page of the on-line edition of the Pioneer.