Review | ‘Motherhood’ Gets the Last Word

The Eve Theatre company continues its inaugural season this week with the anthology play “Motherhood Out Loud,” a follow-up to November’s “Love, Loss, and What I Wore.” Directed by Nancy Hoover, “Motherhood Out Loud” boasts a writing team of 13 playwrights, including Pulitzer Prize finalist Theresa Rebeck and Pulitzer winner Beth Henley, with the mission of challenging traditional ideas of what it means to be a mother and a family.

Divided into five chapters following the life cycle, the show opens with three women in the throes of labor (“Fast Birth Fugue”). Anna Francis ushers in the first monologue (Cheryl L. West’s “Squeeze Hold Release”), a comic piece in which a new mother receives some surprising advice from her own mom. The fugue pieces reappear at the top of each act, setting up a new chapter in parenthood – the first day of school, having the sex talk with the kids, emptying out the nest, and aging.

The characters in the play become parents through birth, adoption, marriage and surrogacy (“If We’re Using a Surrogate, How Come I’m the One With Morning Sickness” by Marco Pennette is the funniest piece in the show). Some embrace their roles, like Charlotte Hammett Hubrich’s melancholy stepmother in Luanne Rice’s “My Almost Family,” while others struggle against the expectations society places on mothers and families, like Su Crocker’s wryly funny take on the tyranny of the playground in Lisa Loomer’s “New in the Motherhood.”

Anthology shows can be tricky beasts. Thirteen different playwrights means the show isn’t going to present a consistent creative voice. In some ways, that’s a strength – when you’re trying to define and re-define motherhood, you don’t want to put limits on what you can do, and an array of styles means most in the audience will find at least one character to whom they relate. On the other hand, it’s almost a guarantee that audience members are going to gravitate more strongly to some voices than others.

As a woman who has no plans to become a mother, I came to this show with few expectations. I found myself gravitating toward the scenes more fraught with anger and tension than wacky shenanigans. Rebeck’s “Baby Bird,” (Crocker again – she’s a standout in this cast) in which the mother of an adopted Chinese girl grows increasingly frustrated with how her family is perceived, stood out, as did Michele Lowe’s “Queen Esther,” (Susan McNeese Lynch), a heartbreaking monologue about a mother trying to shield her son from scorn when he wants to wear a princess dress in public.

Hazel Bartlett brought down the house as a mother already in full grieving mode for the son she has not yet lost to the war in Jessica Goldberg’s “Stars and Stripes,” while Diane Stretz-Thurmond’s portrayal of the mother of an autistic teen in Claire LaZebnik’s “Michael’s Date” hit that perfect mix of dark humor and pathos.

Less effective are Henley’s “Report on Motherhood,” unless you’ve never heard an elderly woman talk dirty before (though 84-year-old actress Mary Ann Johnson gives it her all) and Leslie Ayvazian’s maudlin “Threesome,” (featuring Glenna Godsey) about an overprotective mother of an only child facing an empty nest. Some of the pieces feel a bit like low-hanging fruit, like Brooke Berman’s “Next to the Crib,” shedding little new light on the universal condition of sleep deprivation in new mothers, but they do all feel authentic and likable. 

The only piece in the show that is told from a child’s perspective is David Cale’s excellent “Elizabeth.” Jon Huffman (yes, there are men in this cast) plays a divorcee who returns home to his aging mother’s house to catch his breath and begins to realize that he has, by necessity, moved home for good. The play benefits greatly from this secondary perspective, because while children are one of the defining characteristics of motherhood, they are mostly seen and not heard in this show. With the exception of “Elizabeth,” the moms always get the last word.

Which is to say, I think my own mother would really like this show – she’s a labor and delivery nurse, and if she lived nearby, the schtick of the signature “Epidural” cocktail downstairs at the bar would be too cute for her to resist. Your mom (or moms!) will probably like it, too. Whether she’s the mom who hated the playground or the mom who got matching tattoos with her son, chances are she’ll have something to say about this show. Take her and make a night of it.

“Motherhood Out Loud” runs through June 23 in the Victor Jory Theatre at Actors Theatre of Louisville.

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