Mothers is two plays in one and doesn’t really come together

Photo by Joe Mazza Chicago

It’s clearly “Anna Ouyang Moench Month” in Chicago. It’s not often that we get openings of two plays by the same playwright so close together, but in the last few weeks we’ve had her In Quietness at A Red Orchid and now Mothers at The Gift. While the former is a far stronger play than the latter, their simultaneity does provide an interesting look into Moench and her work.

Now playing at Filament Theatre, The Gift’s post-pandemic home, Mothers begins as a very funny comedy set in a daycare. Within its all-red walls (Lauren Nichols’ set is perhaps a foreshadowing of what is coming), four women and one man wait as their toddlers play, watching and commenting on raising children and interpersonal relationships in often hilarious conversation.

The central characters are Stephanie Shum’s Meg, Krysten McNeil’s Vick, and Caren Blackmore’s Ariana. Meg and Vick share a long history, but they have grown apart since Vick accepted a job in a law firm “in the city”; today, Meg is much closer to her parenting mentor, Ariana. Vick, at this point, is merely a visitor, an ill-fitting reflection of the former friendship these women had. As she is not a mother, she cannot share in any of the joys, tears, milestones, or concerns of a new parent, and her old friend pulls no punches about this. As for Ariana, she is the kind of woman who is up to date on all of the most recent parenting articles and is militant about following their recommendations; she clearly views Vick as a dangerous intruder in her space, an impediment to her blossoming friendship with Meg. While the two mothers wave and coo at their babies (represented here by large teddy bears, in a wonderfully whimsical move by Moench or director Halena Kays), Vick finds herself more and more sidelined in a world she doesn’t share.

Vick is a reflection of one of the characters in In Quietness, a high-powered executive who also has no interest in motherhood. In that play, the character (in an attempt to keep her marriage intact) follows her husband on a religious journey, leaving her job and trying to become a good Baptist housewife. Here, this play’s version of the character finds herself on the defensive as well, trying to understand how her long-time friend has changed so drastically and so quickly. (The answer can be found in Meg’s total lack of self-confidence and her feelings of abandonment when Vick left. Ariana simply filled the vacuum.)

There are two other people in the daycare: a father named Ty (Alex Ireys) and a nanny, a quiet Asian woman named Gladys (Lynnette Li). Neither of these characters is very much involved in the conversation in Act One. Gladys keeps to herself, occasionally cuddling her charge but mostly hanging in one corner of the room. Ty, meanwhile, can’t find any way to break through the estrogen-fueled barrier between him and the moms in the room, so he silently watches his child, occasionally leaving to play with her offstage. Late in the act, Ireys has an utterly hilarious soliloquy that reveals his train of thought during this time. Overwhelmed by the emasculating effect of being a stay-at-home dad and surrounded by these women who pointedly exclude him, he ruminates about…the size of his penis. It might be one of Moench’s deepest dives into a gender stereotype, but it’s also the single funniest moment in the play…and it comes right before the world that they all inhabit quite literally crashes down around them.

Throughout the first act, sound designer Jeffrey Levin and lighting designer Josiah Croegaert alert the characters (and the audience) to something that is happening in the world outside of this daycare with increasingly frequent and ominous reflections of what seem to be planes or something flying closer and closer to where these people are. Just before intermission—in a move that we are seeing in more and more plays lately—all of this comes to a crescendo that sends Act Two into what literally is a different world: in this case, something post-apocalyptic.

It is impossible to discuss further without significant spoilers, but I believe that there is no reasonable way to critique this play without its second act. I will try to be as oblique as I can.

Act Two presents the aftermath of the calamity. Ty becomes connected to a group of militant alpha males who have established a command nearby and gradually becomes one himself, ultimately convincing one of the women to come with him, where we know exactly what she will be in for. Two of the women become extremely ill and spend most of the act near death’s door. The babies suffer from malnutrition. It’s a humanitarian nightmare: the complete breakdown of civilization as we know it.

Even the play’s structure changes to reflect this. Act One is presented as a single long scene (interrupted only for Ty’s monologue). This is possible while the world is as it always has been: things rarely change. But Act Two is a total disintegration of world order, and it is shown in short, disconnected bits of action as if someone were taking a strobe light to what remains of the world and revealing it in brief bursts. During all of this, we find the least likely character taking charge.

Small, quiet Gladys remains healthy and completely functional, and it seems she has an unexpected background and an inner strength we did not know. When she finds herself the final bulwark against the slow, disease-plagued deaths of the others (including the babies), she alone has the strength and presence of mind to do what needs to be done.

Mothers‘ schizophrenic structure is probably accurate enough in its reflection of the before and after of this kind of cataclysm, but it doesn’t make for a play that holds together. Moench clearly wants to take us from the petty silliness and selfishness of people’s actions on what seems to be a normal day to the harrowing effects of that day’s sheer and sudden dissolution. She tries to make this reversal powerful and poignant, but unfortunately there is no good way to slip easily from silliness to horror halfway through a play. OK, there might be, but this isn’t it; she is forced to leave the characters we have known best out of commission and focus only on what remains. It’s a great acting challenge for Li, who makes the most of it, and a directing challenge for Halena Kays, who does what she can but can’t quite hold it all together. Mothers feels like two separate plays because it’s written that way. It’s a fascinating and provocative exercise, but ultimately not much more.

(For my take on the fascinating In Quietness, see my review. In it, Moench takes a very different path to explore a woman’s decision about career v. marriage and motherhood.)

Mothers is a production of The Gift Theatre and is now playing at Filament Theatre, 1441 N. Milwaukee, Chicago, until March 3rd. Performance times vary; check the website. Find more information about current plays on our Current Shows page and at theatreinchicago.com.

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