The Poignant Trials of Motherhood in City Theatre’s “Cry It Out”

Reviewed by Ralph Leary

As every new parent knows, babies don’t come with an owner’s manual.  Books stores are filled with shelves of advice and guidance, and thousands of sites are just a Google-click away, but it’s hard not to feel you are pretty much on your own.  As Cry It Out, by award winning playwright Molly Smith Metzler, reveals in a production now running at City Theatre, new mothers most feel this sense of isolation as they try to contend with their own insecurities while also tending to their bouncing bundle of needs.

Luckily, new mothers Jessie (Sarah Goeke) and Lina (Julianne Avolio) discover each other as next door neighbors.  Carrying their baby monitors which, when placed at a precise spot on Jessie’s unfurnished patio, allow them to watch their babies sleeping, they get fresh air outside of the house, share coffee, and talk about the challenges of being new mothers in 21st century America.  In the process—and through the nuanced performances of Goeke and Avolio—they form a deep bond.

At first glance, though, they seem an odd pairing.  A clerical worker at a local hospital, Lina is a Long Island local, and her accent, peppered with salty language, hangs on her like her over-sized post-maternity pants and tops.  By contrast, before she had her emergency C-section, Jessie was a Manhattan acquisitions attorney on the cusp of being made partner in her prestigious firm. What they have in common are their newborns and their anxieties in trying to negotiate the challenges imposed on them by their babies and others expectations of world of how they are “supposed” to respond.  They also share a deep desire to stay at home with their infants after their two or three month maternity leave. As the primary money maker in her household, this is impossible for Lina, while Jessie, married to the son of wealthy Long Islanders, fears telling her husband what she wants to do.

Significantly, the husbands of these two women are never on the stage.  They have gone back to living the lives they had before or wanting those old lives to magically reappear, so they never grasp the sense of isolation their wives feel.  Mitchell (Tim McGeever), the only man who appears on stage (though male influence is subtly present throughout), is equally obtuse. He drives down from one of the wealthy houses on the hill above Jessie’s house because he wants to have his wife, also a new mother, join the coffee rituals.  As his wife Adrienne (Rebecca Hirota) makes it abundantly clear, though, she wants none of this. Coerced to visit, Adrienne comes across as rude and cold, though this mostly masks her anger at her husband’s naive but well-meaning control and his belief she is somehow not doing motherhood as he thinks she should. 

Under Kim Weild’s delicate direction, the story emerges through the intimate conversations of the new mothers who bond together realizing they have found someone they can talk to about the quiet fears of how the new baby changing them and altering who they are.  The unified design elements create a suburban world with its combination of comfort and disconnection. Anne Mundell’s scenic design, an empty patio area (except for a playhouse Jessie’s daughter is years from using) lies beneath a hill with large lit houses, where the rest of the world lives.  Costume designer Robert CT Steele subtly presents the gradual changes in the women’s postpartum bodies even as he demonstrates their different socio-economic status. Lina’s not so ironic T-shirt likely rings true for all mothers who have nursed.

Being a new mother in the United States is such a challenge it is almost amazing women opt for it, and Metzler’s play lays many of those challenges out in a way that never seems heavy-handed and is frequently quite humorous.  It’s real. From the difficulties one may have in getting pregnant, to the trauma of birth, postpartum depression, physiological changes, the challenges of nursing, and more, new mothers have a lot to contend with. And then, since most families need two wage-earners, they face the separation from their babies when their all-to-brief maternity leave (often unpaid) ends.  And no matter how supportive their husbands, families, and in-laws may try to be, they simply cannot understand how alone they can feel after they bring their new life back home. It is a testament to Metzler and the City Theatre production that so many of these issues are deftly dramatized through the talk of women who are just trying to figure out who they now are.

Cry It Out plays at City Theatre through March 22. For tickets and more, visit their homepage.

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