John P. McCarthy
- OnStage NY/CT Critic
Stratford, CT – Motherhood is best celebrated in suburbia. Sure, mothers are found everywhere, but moms and the suburbs just seem to go together. This notion really hits home when the ups and downs of childbearing and child-rearing are saluted on the grounds of an elementary school as they are in Square One Theatre’s production of “Motherhood Out Loud”.
The pedagogic venue in question is the company’s new home—the auditorium at Stratford Academy, an arts-oriented magnet school in Stratford. Rather than employ the hall in a conventional way, Square One has opted to create an intimate space on the auditorium’s proscenium stage, where audience members sit in comfortably padded chairs on three sides of a small performance area.
This set-up works well for the compilation comedy conceived by Susan R. Rose and Joan Stein. Presented without an intermission and lasting ninety minutes, “Motherhood Out Loud” is comprised of seventeen short scenes, many of which are monologues, authored by eleven playwrights. (Beth Henley and Lisa Loomer are the most recognizable names.) The pieces are grouped under five chapter headings loosely arranged chronologically, as in life stages—“Fast Births,” “First Day Fugue,” “Sex Talk,” “Stepping Out” and “Coming Home”.
In the opener, three women—played by Lucy Babbitt, Lillian Garcia and Leigh Katz—hold forth on the physical pain and discomfort of childbirth. Then comes writer Cheryl L. West’s vignette entitled “Squeeze, Hold, Release,” in which a woman claims that the postpartum advice she receives about keeping her nether regions toned is an accurate description of motherhood. The next, and arguably most raucous, entry is set in a park, where one mother vapes pot while comparing the playground to Dante’s Purgatory (Hell would be too exciting a parallel) before encountering two snobby mums.
Hot-button topical issues are raised in three successive pieces. In the poignant “Queen Esther,” a mother quietly describes her 7-year-old son’s insistence on wearing dresses. Her anguished response to his gender fluidity is heartening. “Baby Girl” deals with the adoption of a child of another race. And in Marco Pennette’s “If We’re Using a Surrogate…”, a gay father (Kiel Stango) describes how he and his partner dealt with the minutiae of the surrogacy process and the challenges they face while broadening the definition of family.
Later, a Muslim mother—an émigré from the Middle East who has settled with her family in Las Vegas—discusses menstrual cycles and ideas of womanhood within her faith tradition. Subsequent scenes address more familiar, less delicate topics such as being an in-law, empty nest syndrome, various approaches to the Thanksgiving holiday, and elderly dementia.
It all adds up to a compact yet comprehensive look at motherhood that, it must be said, is best suited to mature audiences. Frank and slightly risqué at times, the omnibus show inevitably contains several installments that feel slight or perplexingly brief and others you’d like to see expanded into full-length, or at least longer, works.
Under the direction of Tom Holehan, Square One’s AD, the material is conveyed with admirable dispatch. Restricted to a degree by the confines of the small space, the blocking isn’t terribly imaginative; yet that has the advantage of allowing audience members to focus on the words. This being the company’s third show in their new space, over time they’ll no doubt discover how to use it in the most creative ways. The serviceable set consists of three benches arranged on two risers between two shingled walls. Children’s garments hang on a clothesline stretching across the back wall and the overall look suggests a dollhouse.
Wearing simple black tees and pants, the four uniformly strong cast members are allowed occasional costume accessories, props, and hairstyle changes to help texturize their characterizations. But it’s largely left to their acting skills. Each proves up to the task and the ensemble should be congratulated for successfully avoiding sentimentality.
Maternal love prevails in most of the sketches, but in part because it’s a comedy and the mandate is to entertain and provoke reflection, “Motherhood Out Loud” is not all sweetness and light. News flash: not all mothers are wonderful, caring human beings. Though this shouldn’t come as a surprise, it’s still something of a welcome surprise when the characters behave badly or confess to less-than-nurturing feelings. A good example comes in the penultimate scene, written by Beth Henley, when a great-grandmother tells her twelve-year-old daughter that she doesn’t like all seven of her children equally. Far from a “Mommy Dearest” moment, this is simply honesty.
An entertaining ode to both the joys and the sorrows of motherhood, “Motherhood Out Loud” satisfies because it features positive, conventional portraits alongside glimpses of the hardship and suffering—the upside and the downside of being a mother. That’s no small task since, like much in life, parenting is rooted in routine and repetition and is expressly designed to avoid highs and lows.
Square One Theatre Company’s production of “Motherhood Out Loud” runs at Stratford Academy, 719 Birdseye Street, Stratford, CT through May 29, 2016.