The first act of Anna Ouyang Moench’s play “Mothers,” directed by Helena Kays in its premiere at the Gift Theater in Chicago, is a sharply written and smartly acted satire of the absurd dynamics that can arise when polar opposites simply come together. Because their children are the same age. In Mother-Baby Reunion, three mothers (Caren Blackmore, Krystel McNeil, and Stephanie Shum) clash over discipline styles, work-life balance, breastfeeding, and immunizations. Meanwhile, a hesitant father (Alex Ireys) and enigmatic nanny (Lynnette Li) hover around the edges.
In between their bickering, mothers take selfies, pass water bottles, and talk baby talk; not real children, but teddy bears that substitute for them to comic effect. Blackmore, McNeil, and Shum have great chemistry and deliver layered performances that convey the competitiveness of new mothers, the difficulties of adult friendships, and the impact of regional and class differences on parenting. Their antics take place on a striking, all-red set designed by Lauren Nichols, set amidst a pink ball pit that is later about to be destroyed.
After early hints that all is not well in the outside world, things take an apocalyptic turn in the second act, when time unfolds like a twisted nightmare. After a militia traps them in a child care center with little food and water, five caregivers make increasingly desperate choices to save themselves and their babies. As Nanny Gladys takes on a more central role, Li’s character oscillates between apparent compassion and terrifying devotion to survival. It’s an unforgettable performance made all the more intense by Josiah Croegaert’s dim lighting and Jeffrey Levin’s eerie sound design.
Structurally, “Mothers” almost feels like two plays (social comedy and dystopian horror) tied together. The first act works well, but after that the momentum drops. Playwrights love to drop pre-intermission bombshells to keep audiences eager for more, and Moench literally gives us one. However, the pacing feels uneven in Act 2, as the stakes rise very quickly in some scenes but the overall progression of time is confusing. It’s also difficult to form an emotional connection with any character as their shocking actions pile up.
In another example of the disconnect between the two acts, Moench establishes early on that “beige” (white) people are a marginalized group in the “Mothers” world, but abandons this idea once the crisis hits, to no discernible effect. It depends on the rest of the game. Ireys’ character, Ty, is the only beige person in the group and faces microaggressions such as comments that it should be easier to adopt a child as part of a minority couple. Moench’s dialogue cleverly twists the language of his self-proclaimed allies, and these lines draw plenty of laughs. But Ty’s rather brutal character arc in the second act seems to have more to do with gender dynamics than race.
Structural complaints aside, “Mothers” brilliantly examines the harsh realities of parenting in the face of disaster. In the first act, Shum’s character Meg explains that she’s on a “news diet” because the state of the world is so sad. Of course, that doesn’t stop disaster from happening to a place where she and her child should be safe. While Vick, an ambitious lawyer played by McNeil, hopes that the money he earns will provide comfort for himself and his son in the future, he also feels deep down that he needs to get his tubes tied. Gladys is devoted to the child in her care, but she also has children of her own at home who need her to survive.
This production’s cast and creative team includes a lot of caregivers, and going into the dark places of this play can’t be easy when it comes to the personal. None of the problems I’ve raised take away from the fact that these performances are vulnerable and brave. Additionally, the cast’s tonal range is impressive, moving from comedy to horror.
“Mothers” is being published simultaneously with another Moench work. “In Silence” at the Red Orchid Theatre. Although quite different in plot and tone, both plays explore the overlapping areas of gender roles and family relationships, particularly as experienced by women. If you’re looking for witty, thought-provoking writing performed by strong actors, these two pair well.
Emily McClanathan is a freelance critic.
Review: “Mothers” (2.5 stars)
When: until March 3
Where: Gift Theater at Filament Theatre, 4041 N. Milwaukee Ave.
Working time: 2 hours 5 minutes
Tickets: $35-$45 at 773-283-7071 and thegifttheatre.org