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Motherhood Out Loud

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

(clockwise from top left) Randy Graff, James Lecesne, Saidah Arrika Ekulona, and Mary Bacon.
Photo by James Leynse.

Not all theatre needs to be profound. Something like Motherhood Out Loud, the newest production at Primary Stages, reminds you that concrete truths well spoken can still have an impact. Susan Rose and Joan Stein conceived this collection of short works from 14 playwrights, the vast majority of them female, as a look at rites of maternal passage from a panorama of perspectives, and it has no larger goal on its mind than to celebrate the best (and worst) parts of child bearing and child rearing. It's seldom enlightening, but it's consistently thoughtful and entertaining—which, for a show like this, really is enough.

The theme statement of the 90-minute evening is entrenched in the title of Cheryl L. West's entry: "Squeeze, Hold, Release and Now What?" Though those first three verbs refer to a mother's advice on how her daughter, who just gave birth to her own first child, can, uh, keep herself in shape for her husband over the decades to come, they also refer to the most important goals of any parent. "You do squeeze your child," the speaker explains, "and you hold on to them tight, and yes, eventually one day you release them out into the world."

Every subsequent play offers some variation on this theme. Brooke Berman's "Next to the Crib" finds a new mother sprawled out on the carpet next to her newborn "sleep terrorist," unwilling to let him out of out of her sight yet. In "My Almost Family," by Luanne Rice, a woman laments her inability to integrate herself into her boyfriend's pre-established household. "Stars and Stripes" is Jessica Goldberg's determined look at how one worried mom supports her son, who joined the army and is currently fighting in Afghanistan.

Motherhood Out Loud is at its best when it's not moving in rigidly familiar directions. Five "fugues" fashioned by Michele Lowe, consisting of rapid-fire shreds of storytelling and opening each of the five "chapters" roughly corresponding to a stage in life, are kinetic but not clever, saying very little very quickly. A scene in a park at playtime (Lisa Loomer's "New in the Motherhood") imagines motherhood as a secret-society sisterhood, with flabby results. Marco Pennette has scribed one scene, "If We're Using a Surrogate, How Come I'm the One with Morning Sickness," that, because it's about two gay men and their (unseen) egg donor, is a stretch for inclusion here.

There are a couple of successful forays into pure comedy—Lowe's "Bridal Shop" focuses on a mother fretting that she'll lose her son to his new wife, and Beth Henley's "Report on Motherhood" leaps across generations to vivisect the notion that all women in the past were terrific or even willing mothers themselves. But drama, whether light or heavy, is where most of the stories land, and every instance of it is touchingly written and agreeably performed by the suave four-person cast.

Michele Lowe's "Queen Esther" gives Randy Graff an outlet for a superb recounting of how one mom comes to terms with her young son's predilection for cross-dressing one Purim. "Baby Bird" (Theresa Rebeck) provides a nice showcase for actress Mary Bacon to rail against traditional stereotypes as she defends her adopted Chinese daughter's position in her home. Lameece Issaq delivers "Nooha's List," a witty look at coping with menstruation, which Saidah Arrika Ekulona invests with equal parts of warmth and frustration. The sole male cast member, James Lecesne, is tasked with the most affecting monologue: David Cale's "Elizabeth," in which a recently divorced man comes to realize he now has to be parent to his own aging mother.

Director Lisa Peterson efficiently manages and presents each individual element, and more important maintains a consistent tone and rhythm that lets the pieces hang together far better onstage than they do on paper. Rachel Hauck's vaguely playroom-and-chalkboard set is colorful, and augmented by pastel-friendly lights (by Christopher Kuhl) and projections (by Jan Hartley), but this is hardly a show that leaves you remembering its visuals.

You're far more likely to recall the isolated instances of joy and heartbreak that pepper these works, whether because they're drawn from your own experiences, or because they crystallize for you what your own mother must have gone through. It can be as specific as "Threesome" (Leslie Ayvazian), in which a couple alone after sending their son to college can't get him off their minds, but more likely it's going to be along the lines of "My Baby," Annie Weisman's rumination on how a mother wants her infant daughter to remember her years from now.

"However old you are," the young-ish woman in the scene coos to her child, "10, 20, 70... there was still a moment years ago, that I'll never forget. When one second you weren't there, and the next second you were. Life began. And I got to be there." Have you heard this all before? Of course. But Motherhood Out Loud is good and sweet enough to make it pleasurable to hear it all again.

Motherhood Out Loud
Through October 29
59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, between Park and Madison
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral

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