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Chicago by John Olson

The Kid Thing
Chicago Dramatists and About Face Theatre

Also see John's review of Putting It Together

The Kid Thing
Rebekah Ward-Hayes, Kelli Simpkins, Park Krausen and Halena Kays
Following the success of the summer's The Homosexuals, a comedy-drama exploring various types of gay male relationships and friendships in the past decade, About Face Theatre (here in association with Chicago Dramatists) now offers The Kid Thing as a bookend for same-sex lovers of the female gender. Ever notice how bookends don't always work they way you expect them to? In my experience, one bookend always seems to slide away under the weight of the books. Similarly, Sarah Gubbins' dramedy about two Lesbian couples—one in early stages of pregnancy, the other contemplating a pregnancy—isn't as solid as its male counterpart.

The two couples are longtime best friends—part of each others' chosen gay family, as they put it. At a dinner party one evening, after an overlong conversation about the late Michael Jackson and his suitability for parenthood, Margot and Nate give their pals Darcy and Leigh the news that they're expecting. This sparks a discussion among Darcy and Leigh about their own plans for conceiving and raising a family. For reasons not made clear until the play's end, Darcy is equivocal on the question, but Leigh somehow infers permission to begin drafting a plan for getting pregnant. She and Nate (presumably a masculinized nickname for Natalie) arrange a meeting for Leigh and Darcy with Margot's sperm donor, an old college classmate of Leigh and Nate's.

Through the first two scenes, Gubbins does a nice job of giving us a look into the lives of Lesbian couples—in some ways not so different from any other couple (i.e. challenges of juggling work and personal schedules, managing finances, maintaining fidelity to one's partner, and controlling irritation at each others' nasty habits)—and in other ways quite unique (navigating the difficult process of conception without a male in the relationship, and managing butch/femme identity issues). Her decision to have each couple include one butch and one femme is somewhat stereotypical and diagrammatic (furthermore, in one couple the butch is the greater wage-earner; in the other the femme is the primary breadwinner). If not for the fact that director Joanie Schultz has her cast push too hard when a more relaxed, naturalistic reading might be better, and that Gubbins's dialogue is frequently overwritten and self-consciously clever (i.e. "My eggs are aging in dog years."), the first act would be in pretty good shape. In the last scene before intermission, we learn that Darcy and Margot have been having an affair—perhaps the reason for Darcy's hesitancy to begin a family with Leigh, and Margot lets slip the news that Leigh and Nate have planned a meeting for Leigh and Darcy with the sperm donor. The premise seems to be set up and the source of the dramatic tension made clear. Reason enough to get us back in our seats after intermission.

Once we get back, though, the whole thing goes off the rails. The sperm donor, Jacob, arrives and seems to be quite an anxious fellow. Maybe this is because he's harbored a crush on Natalie since college, or maybe it's because he's moved back in with his mother while looking for new work. The cause of his anxiety is not made sufficiently clear. Maybe he's read the script and knows of the awkward scenes ahead—in which new sources of tension between Darcy and Margot (and between the two couples) are introduced with each scene (sort of like the improv technique in which the performers start a scene and have the audience shout out topics, which the improv-ers will incorporate and use to change the direction of their story). When Darcy finally reveals the reason behind her hesitancy to have kids, it's one for which we've been barely prepared and is a wholly unsatisfying denouement.

Gubbins has more success in creating her butch characters than the femme ones. Darcy is a hard-working, controlling PR exec with a very sharp tongue and wit. Kelli Simpkins looks tall, lean and mannish in her wardrobe of men's apparel and is a strong if often intransigent person. In spite of the unjustified plot twists she's given, Simpkins's Darcy is fascinating and always watchable. The other couple's butch, Nate, sports an age-inappropriate skater boy look (so noted in the dialogue) and is played by Halena Kays with a teenage-like tomboyish charm. Nate is clearly the most self-aware of the group and easily the most likable. On the femme side, Leigh is mostly kind and outgoing, yet she does some of the most deceitful things in the play. Park Krausen plays her with an earth-motherly charm and girlish energy, but isn't able to reconcile those qualities with the more devious side of Leigh. Margot is drawn as cold and stern in her exchanges with Darcy, more supportive of Leigh and loving to Nate, but the overall impression of Margot is mostly one-dimensional. She's played by the lovely Rebekah Ward-Hays, who bears a striking resemblance to Julianne Moore. This would never be a bad thing, except that it invites a comparison of The Kid Thing to last year's feature film The Kids Are Alright, a much better treatment of lesbian coupling and parenting issues that starred Ms. Moore. Steve O'Connell plays the anxious Jacob about as well as could be expected given the underwritten character and the changing landscape of the three scenes in which he appears.

The Kid Thing will undoubtedly resonate among lesbians and provide insight into that community for those not so familiar with it. Anyone gay or straight who's thoughtfully wrestled with the decision to conceive or not conceive will relate as well. Also on the plus side is the pitch-perfect depiction of an Andersonville condo in the set by Chelsea Warren and props by Katherine Greenleaf. Izumi Inaba's costumes seem equally perfect for each character and Gubbins' Chicago references all clearly set the action in the community the local audience knows well. These resonances may be enough to make it enjoyable for its core audience, but the multiple and shifting sources of dramatic tension will keep it from being a fully satisfying script for wider crowd.

The Kid Thing will play through October 16, 2011, at Chicago Dramatists, 1105 W. Chicago Ave. For tickets, visit www.chicagodramatists.org.


Photo: Michael Brosilow

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-- John Olson



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