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Motherhood Out Loud
By Elyse Sommer
Here's the first surprise for me upon seeing the New York premiere of Motherhood Out Loud that just opened at Primary Stages' 59E59 home: Rose and Stein, director Lisa Peterson and the four story tellers have managed to turn what could easily be a disjointed mish-mash into a tightly integrated, theatrically solid and thematically expansive theatrical experience. Moreover, the playwrights brought together to write on an assigned topic have not succumbed to an overdose of Hallmark sentiment.
Nineteen stories arranged to fit into a 90-minute run time may sound like a setup more for a handsome staged reading than a play with a lot of scenery, but this is not a mere copycat attempt to find another theatrical chick-lit hit like Love, Loss and What I Wore and, long before that The Vagina Monologues. Though there's little scenery the four cast members are much more than readers who could easily rotate every month to keep the show fresh and newsworthy. Instead, they play their assorted roles without resorting to scripts and the playwrights' contributions come together as scenes within the arc of a play — beginning with the birthing process (Fast Birth Fugue by Michelle Lowe) . . . moving forward through stories about the various stages of life. . . and coming full circle to the bond forged during that birthing process (My Baby by Annie Weissman).
Everything between the giving birth and falling in love with the newborn bookend piecess is by turns funny and occasionally quite moving. Insights into the familiar and "brave new world" aspects of the meaning of motherhood cover having a mother as well as being one, adoptive and scientifically aided parenting as well as biological birthing.
When our Connecticut critic reviewed Motherhood Out Loud's first outing at Hartford Stage, the actors actually did at times use scripts. However, the show has been fine tuned, which includes some play substitutions. The performances are definitely more than stand-up or sit-down readings, with the diverse characters and situations giving each cast member, including the one male a chance to shine.
In keeping with the progression from birthing to coping the play has been divided into chapters headed Fast Birth, First Day, Sex Talk, Stepping Out and Coming Home. Each chapter contains four playlets, except for Chapter Three which has three. Playwright Michele Lowe clocks in with seven segments, the other scribes are represented by a single offering.
While any mother wants to love her children equally, in Beth Henley's Chapter Five Report on Motherhood an old woman being interviewed for a school project by her great-granddaughter (Saidah Arrika Ekulona, her 12-year-old as amusing and convincing as her several adult roles) admits to not loving all her children the same. In fact, the crotchety outspoken mother of seven (one of several terrific characterizations by Randy Graff) admits that she really doesn't like motherhood all that well and probably would not have had so many children had birth control been available when she was young.
In Lisa Loomer's New to Motherhood a younger, present-day mother (the versatile Mary Bacon, whose roles include one as a boy) also isn't all oh-joy-is-me about being part of the stay-at-home mommy contingent in the neighborhood park. As she confides to the audience "God, I hate the park. If anyone had told me I’d be sentenced to five to ten years in the park . . .I’d have stuck with a cat."
To go back to Randy Graff's old lady admitting to not loving her children equally and some even not at all, I too must admit that while I admired and enjoyed the way the nineteen plays have been arranged into a unified whole, I responded more positively to the humor and emotional impact of some pieces than others, while not at all to some.
It took Marc Pennette's If We're Using a Surrogate, How Come I'm the One with Morning Sickness in the second chspter, about two men who become Dad and Papa instead of a more traditional Mommy and Daddy, to really make me laugh out loud rather than just chuckle. Like Peter Bartlett's portrayal of Paul Rudnick's Mr. Charles, this monologue as delivered by James Lecesne could easily take on a life of it's own. Lecesne is also excellent in a more serious and touching vein, as the son of a woman in the first stages of dementia in David Cale's Elizabeth.. Bolstering the second chapter's status as my favorite was Theresa Rebeck's contribution, Baby Bird, about a mother (Mary Bacon) with one biological son an adopted Chinese born girl.
For my companion, a freshly minted empty nester, Leslie Ayvazian's Threesome in Chapter Four, evoked a "hey that's me" chuckle. Like her, moms, grandmoms, dads and granddads will find plenty of such highly identifiable moments. Of course, what makes the whole enterprise enjoyable is the way the actors segue seamlessly from character to character.
David Woolard's costumes, abet their seamless personality transitions. Jill BC DuBoff's original music and Christopher Kuhl's lighting set the mood for each piece. On the other hand Jan Hartley's projections and Emily Hubley's animation add color but without any really meaningful imagery to support the stories.
While the concept of a theatrical tapestry on this universal subject has been polished and perfected on its way to this New York premiere, I can see it adding and rearranging the contents over the course of what promises to be a long and successful journey all over the country and even abroad. My wish list for additional topical entries would see the actress playing the Randy Graff characters (listed only as Actor C) in a play about one of the age 50+ mothers who've been populating mommy-land, or the actress playing the Mary Bacon characters (Actor A) in a play about the daughter of parents old enough to be her grandparents. This is more a wish than a quibble. The Motherhood Out Loud production now at Primary Stages covers enough emotional and topical territory to be worth seeing just as it is.
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