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In theatre, there is almost always an inherent sense of voyeurism. Spirit Gum Theatre Company's production of Cry It Out, now showing in the intimate black box setting of Milton Rhodes Art Center's Mountcastle Forum/Theatre, intensifies this voyeuristic feeling.
The story closely follows the interactions of four new parents: Jessie (Rene Walek), Lina (Janel Boyd), and husband-and-wife duo Mitchell (Michael Ackerman) and Adrienne (Tensley Nesbitt). The play felt amazingly real. Becky McLaughlin (director and set designer), Jenny Lawrence (stage manager and sound designer), and Dean Wilcox (lighting designer) have created the quintessential suburban mood. McLaughlin's set uses only a few subtle pieces, but they are enhanced by Wilcox's use of lighting, especially in the night scenes that containing shadows cast by the moon. Lawrence's sparse soundscape reminds the audience that this is not just a story of four people but their children as well. And, of course, Sarah Jenkins' costume design suits each character perfectly – especially some of Lina's more bold choices.
We are first introduced to Jessie and Lina, who met at the grocery store the day prior and begin a daily ritual of drinking coffee in Jessie's yard in front of her Long Island, NY home. They become fast friends, telling their stories of motherhood, giving advice, and generally being each other's biggest supporters. There was an immediate contrast in Boyd's and Walek's performances, with Lina being the strong-willed, foul-mouthed lifelong New Yorker and Jessie being the optimistic and helpful Chicago-area transplant. Even with their differences, the two characters find common ground on the many changes that accompany motherhood. Soon, some socioeconomic tensions begin to show, however: Jessie is upper-middle class, happily married, and on maternity leave from her career as an attorney. Lina is unmarried and living with her boyfriend at his alcoholic mother's house. Jessie realizes she does not want to return to work, while Lina has no choice but to go back to her job at the hospital mere weeks after she gave birth. With this dichotomy, it would have been easy for Walek and Boyd to create caricatures of Jessie and Lina. Instead, the actors gave their characters great emotional depth, portraying the personalities (and sometimes conflicting emotions) of Jessie and Lina while also finding humor in their disagreements so that these coping mothers are able to laugh through it all.
Then Mitchell arrives in his Porsche, sporting a fitted blue suit and slicked-back hair, but with none of the confidence one assumes would come with his tailored appearance. He is frazzled and stumbles over his words but eventually asks Jessie and Lina if his wife, Adrienne, can join. Adrienne has not been the same since having their daughter, Livia (not "Olivia"), and Mitchell doesn't even remember the last time she touched Livia. The next day, when Adrienne arrives with her family's assistant and an impressive charcuterie board, she clearly has no interest in spending time with Jessie and Lina. She mostly ignores the two of them, and Lina is more concerned with the cheese on the board than getting to know standoffish Adrienne. (A woman after my own heart.) Adrienne has enough and storms back home, and Mitchell returns that night to apologize, leading Jessie to the conclusion that Adrienne suffers from postpartum depression. When Adrienne hears of this, she does what any normal person would: egg Jessie's house. Then, as the aggrieved Adrienne, Nesbitt delivered an impassioned monologue that was the most powerful scene of the play.
Jessie learns that Adrienne does not have postpartum depression but is enraged because she physically cannot hold her daughter due to a condition known as "Mommy Thumb" and she also suffered multiple IVF miscarriages. This interaction happened right in front of my seat, allowing me to fully embrace Nesbitt's breathtaking performance. The black box setting benefits this play greatly, giving audiences access to the subtle emotions on each actor's face, from Nesbitt's monologue to the puzzled looks on Ackerman's face as Mitchell tries to sort out why new mothers simply cannot always be as cheery as he can. With such a close seat, I could peer into Jessie's mind through Walek as she imagines her life with her daughter, and I could see past Lina's exterior and find a Boyd portraying a woman who is exhausted by the hand she's been dealt.
As I drove home, Jessie's final line kept rattling in my head. Jessie is saddened after she was denied an extended leave from her firm, meaning she will only get a few hours with her daughter every night. Mitchell tries to reassure her, saying her daughter is lucky to have a mother like Jessie, to which she replies, "Is she?" as the lights fade to black. There is certainly such thing as bad parenting, but there is no one-size-fits-all, "correct" way to do it. What works for Jessie doesn't work for Mitchell or Adrienne or Lina. But that longing to simply be better lies at the heart of Cry It Out.
Cry It Out continues through Sunday, May 21. For more details on this production please view the sidebar.