Silence speaks volumes about familial relationships in Over Her Dead Body

A mother and young daughter having a birthday tea party.

Jan Henderson and Christine Lesiak in Over Her Dead Body. Photo credit Ian Walker.

Whether positive or negative, there’s nothing quite like a mother-daughter relationship. No matter if your Mom is your best friend, or if your relationship is more complicated than that, the bond between mothers and daughters is special, and has proved to be a rich wellspring of ideas for Jan Henderson, Christine Lesiak, and Suzie Martin as they created the show Over Her Dead Body, which plays at the ATB Arts Barns November 28 – December 9.

Suzie Martin, who co-wrote and directs Over Her Dead Body, says, “It looks at a mother-daughter relationship as children age and move away and the things we carry from our childhood relationships with family members who knew us when we were very small. Particularly fraught sometimes, I find, are mother-daughter relationships. Who is the mom when one is ageing into being senior and the other is a mom herself. The play looks at those dynamics but it’s a nonverbal, physical comedy show.”

Over Her Dead Body revolves around a free-spirited mother (played by Jan Henderson) whose husband has passed away and daughter (played by Christine Lesiak) has grown up and started a family of her own. As she ages and her friends pass away, the mother grows ever more lonely and wants her daughter to come home for a visit, however, when the daughter comes home, she finds herself at her mother’s funeral wake.

Shedding more light on the two characters, Suzie says, “The mother character is played by Jan, and is 76 in our timeline. She is now a widow and has a grown-up daughter. She was a free-spirit herself, left home in the 1960s and met the love of her life, married, had a child, and that became her whole life. She had this beautiful family she loved, she played the piano and she had this operatic soul in the sense of art, love and fun … Christine plays the daughter, who is a more no-nonsense kind of character. We talked about how she felt she had to grow up a little quicker to take care of her mom after her dad passed away. She leaves home for school and is very smart, very bookish, and has always been more rigid, even more so as she’s aged and married someone and became a mom herself. There’s a contrast between this fluid soul of the mother and the rigid daughter not knowing how to process what’s happened.”

A mother and her grown daughter have tea and cake.

Jan Henderson and Christine Lesiak in Over Her Dead Body. Photo credit Ian Walker

Over Her Dead Body is played as a silent physical comedy reminiscent, Suzie says, of the style of Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin or Mr. Bean. This silent physical comedy style works so well with the subject matter of familial relations, as there is so much that is unsaid in the way family members relate to one another, Suzie says, “Someone can give you a physical cue or just a meaningful look and you know exactly what they’re saying. For outside eyes, that feels really rich and very funny. The audience can still follow and know what’s going on, but there is also a distance in that they know exactly what’s going on in – you can tell who is pushing whose buttons and you can see what each person wants – but you’re also a little left on the outside. You don’t know the bizarre ritual they’re doing because that’s on the ‘inside’ of being in a family.”

As friends and actors, Jan and Christine’s close relationship translates from real life to the stage, having worked together for many years. In fact, Jan originally taught Christine clown, the two have taught classes together, and Jan has directed Christine in shows in the past. From her seat as the Director, Suzie says this long history is tangible on stage, “They have a mother-daughter relationship in terms of their art, and they’re quite close, so that dynamic actually is quite present in the room.”

While Jan has taught clown and directed over the years, Over Her Dead Body will mark her return to the stage after 25 years. Jan says that the drive to return to the stage came from her clown, Fender. “I missed her! Every now and then over the years, I’ve gotten back into her for an event or something and every time she’s different because I’ve changed and grown. Your personal clown is the alter ego version of how you’ve been recently conditioned – it’s the most authentic version of your conditioned self. Sometimes you’re surprised by how they react, but it’s a mirror of where you’re at… I just really wanted to perform. It’s so much fun to find all the steps of that process, on the other side of the table, since I’m used to seeing it from the perspective of a director”.

Despite the serious backdrop of the story, Suzie says the comedy of the show comes through loud and clear. “People should come to the show expecting a comedy. It’s zany, it’s very strange. They can come expecting a weird, but also familiar time, and maybe to be moved along the way.”

Over Her Dead Body plays at the ATB Financial Arts Barns November 28 – December 9. Preview performances are November 28 and 29, with opening night being November 30. December 5 is a relaxed performance with pay-what-you-will admission.

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