Saturday, August 4, 2018

Phoenix Theatre ends its turbulent 2017-18 season with "Cry It Out," a comedy-drama on motherhood

In the vaunted American trinity of "God, motherhood, and apple pie," sometimes it seems as if fruit pies and the Lord Almighty have better prospects than that third partner, which is honored with elaborate lip service but substantially unsupported.

Molly Smith Metzler's "Cry It Out," which opened Friday night in a Phoenix Theatre production, plants its feet squarely in defense of modern motherhood by shedding light on the host of challenges it faces. Products and practices, philosophies and excruciating binary choices, the cost-benefit calculus of love and need — all come into head-spinning play.

The Basile Theater's black-box setting puts the audience in the side yard between the homes of new mothers Jessie and Lena, whom we first see nervously checking their baby monitors to ascertain where it's safe to meet and talk. The neat, modest exteriors of their houses, summed up in opposite corners of Daniel Uhde's set, belie the stress of measuring up to the upward social mobility of their environment, with the Long Island village of Manorhaven almost literally in the shadow of the wealthy Sands Point.
Lena and Jessie bond over coffee without benefit of lawn furniture.

Metzler's long one-act play, capably directed here by Chelsey Stauffer, is front-loaded with the comic aspects of the mothers' dilemmas. The rapport energetically established by Lauren Briggeman (Jessie) and Sally Scharbrough (Lena) is immediately winning. The dialogue sparkles with wit and surefire female bonding.

Mitchell (Michael Hosp) appeals to Jessie for understanding.
This feels authentic in these performances as we quickly learn how different the two women are, even as they share a common struggle with the work/home polarity. Jessie is a transplanted Midwesterner with an open, accepting nature and a tendency to mask her deepest anxieties about career and motherhood. Lena is a lifelong New Yorker with an abundance of pizazz — observant, feisty, life-embracing on her own terms and freely judgmental. (Scharbrough's accent was great until Lena's meltdown, when it shredded along with the character's composure.)

These qualities set up their different responses to the entrance of Mitchell, a nervous, well-heeled Sands Point neighbor who finds it hard to avoid admitting he "looks down" on Lena and Jessie in more ways than one. Yet his desperation, nicely calibrated in Michael Hosp's performance to take in a sense of entitlement, is genuine. His loftier social and geographical position is faintly embarrassing, given his proposal: May his wife, a withdrawn new mother focusing on her prestige as a jewelry designer, join the Manorhaven neighbors' kaffeeklatches to share their apparent comfort in parenting and learn from it?

Lena and Adrienne check their devices as a social occasion flops.
Bristling with resentment at what her husband has gotten her into, Adrienne (well-defined in woundedness by Andrea Heiden) lowers the temperature toward absolute zero when she joins the two friends. Only upon her explosive return to confront Jessie — whose instinctive sympathy makes her a more obvious target than the bristling Lena — is the audience reminded that motherhood can present much darker dilemmas of physical and mental health than those faced by Jessie and Lena.

Metzler's examination of those depths feels somewhat schematic, though her scrutiny retains enough flow, especially in portrayals as richly detailed as this production's, to give "Cry It Out" poignant cohesiveness. The late meeting of Mitchell and Jessie at a point where their parental lives are heading in opposite directions was tender and beautifully judged on opening night.

The play's title is taken from the questionable philosophy of infant care that suggests babies should be allowed to wail away in their cribs, unattended unless there's reason to suspect something is going very wrong. The implication for grown-ups as new parents (particularly mothers)  is that, even if things feel quite wrong, they may have no avenues for overcoming difficulties until they cry it out and come to new understandings, new adjustments.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]

No comments:

Post a Comment