There’s a lot to unpack in Morgan Gould’s “Nicole Clark Is Having a Baby”: mom issues, food issues, the way our culture treats pregnant women, the way our culture treats fat women, the way we revert to our teenage selves as soon as we step inside the door of our childhood home, the stories we tell ourselves to get by. Yet this play, part of Actors Theatre’s Humana Festival of New American Plays, never feels like a too-lofty “big ideas” kind of play, but a funny, deeply relatable and human story about mothers and daughters just trying to figure it all out.
The title character (played with empathy and fire by Nicole Spiezio) has returned to her hometown for her best friend’s baby shower, and she and her fiancé are staying at her mother’s house. Nicole is smart, accomplished, confident and fat; her mother Helen is neurotic, critical, self-absorbed and she used to be fat. Helen is a Weight Watchers leader now: she uses zero-calorie butter spray on her vegetables and can describe in excruciating detail how she makes an egg-white omelette, in obsessive language that will be achingly familiar to anyone who has ever been on a diet.
Helen only wants the best for her daughter, of course, and in her mind, being thinner would be best. So when Nicole announces that she’s pregnant, Helen’s concern-trolling kicks into high gear, and all the tensions that lurk beneath the surface come roaring to the top.
Playwright Gould also directs this production, and she keeps the pace moving along briskly: most of the action takes place over one weekend and the dialogue is fast and bright. The set design by Lauren Helpern, with its 1970s “harvest gold” kitchen counters and appliances, brings us into a home that hasn’t changed much since Nicole was a child.
Nancy Robinette’s portrayal of Helen is pitch-perfect: even though we can see that Helen would be maddening to spend an evening with, she’s not a terrible person. Robinette fully embodies Helen’s anxiety and control issues, and we eventually see her love for her daughter expressed in more tender ways.
Nicole’s fiancé Robert (DeShawn Harold Mitchell) and her best friend Amy (Emily Kunkel) play supporting roles to the mother-daughter drama, but they are no less fully formed than Nicole and Helen. Robert has the most emotional intelligence of all of them, but even he has no idea what he’s wading into with this family.
It’s refreshing to see issues of women and weight onstage, even though it might be challenging for some. (The theater’s content advisory warns about “disordered eating behaviors and fatphobia.”) We don’t often get an opportunity to see a fat woman onstage or onscreen who isn’t trying to lose weight. “Nicole Clark Is Having a Baby” puts a strong, memorable character at the center of her own story, and reveals that her relationship with her mother — something plenty of us struggle with — is a much thornier problem than her size.
Nicole Clark is Having A Baby is playing as part of Actors Theatre’s Humana Festival of New American Plays through April 12. For more details, click here.