In the bleak Long Island backyard that serves as their coffee-klatch confessional, neighbors Lina and Jessie chat daily about the alternately hilarious and heart-wrenching emotional terrain of new motherhood. Baby-monitoring devices in hand, they sit with steaming mugs on a miniature plastic playset, grappling with the biological, social and economic upheavals that have suddenly overtaken their lives.
Molly Smith Metzler’s Cry It Out explodes the myths of maternal bliss. In Studio Theatre’s stirring new production of this wry and trenchant play, we see how nearly impossible it is for women to “have it all.” No one prepares us for the perilous straits we’ll need to navigate between work and childcare. Many of us never consider how our range of choice is sharply defined by class and money.
Jessie, a Columbia-trained lawyer, considers whether she wishes to return to her prestigious Manhattan firm after a nightmarish emergency C-section makes her daughter’s birth even more miraculous. No such options are available for Lina, who works a low-level job at a local hospital. She’ll need to return to duty ASAP.
Metzler writes from experience. The play recalls her own experience as a house-bound, isolated new mother in Port Washington, NY, a patchwork community of entrenched working class families, commuting Manhattan professionals, and wealthy occupants of fabulous mansions perched just overhead on a cliff, in Sands Point. The title is a reference to a controversial theory of sleep training for infants. Do we simply let them cry themselves to sleep, no matter how long it takes? Or do we gather the fussing little ones into comforting arms?
While Cry It Out is a clear-eyed look at maternal stresses in today’s America, it is also swift-moving and laugh-out-loud entertaining. Joanie Schultz has assembled a first-rate cast and directs them with assurance. Ranging from deadpan to devastating, Dina Thomas is spectacular as the wise-cracking Lina, an unsophisticated yet gutsy South Shore girl whose childcare options are limited to her boyfriend’s wine-addled mother.
Emjoy Gavino radiates enormous appeal as the decent and loving Jessie. She also conveys the immense naïvete of a woman who has lived in a privileged, erudite world. Some of her cultural touchpoints fly right over Lina’s head, and she seriously miscalculates the effect a gag gift will have on her new friend. Yet the genuine chemistry forged by Thomas and Gavino soars over the class divide and is a key component of this production’s success.
They are joined by two other excellent performers. Paolo Andino plays the wealthy entrepreneur Mitchell, who literally looks down on Jessie and Lina through his telescope perched high above in Sands Point. A father concerned by his wife Adrienne’s apparent lack of interest in their newborn, he makes an awkward plea to permit his wife entry into the young mothers’ daily meet-up. Tessa Klein as Adrienne, a successful jewelry designer, drips disdain. Angry and humiliated by her husband’s attempt to set up play dates for her with “normal” mothers, she lashes out with exquisite fury. But of course, Adrienne has an important backstory – one that makes us think twice about the sacrifices we still expect of women.
The economic disparities that lie at the heart of Metzler’s play are brilliantly aided by Chelsea Warren’s background set design. Wide horizontal bands of photos – Manhattan, Manhasset Bay, and the typical duplexes that line the Port Washington shore – literally call to mind the layers of society that the playwright explores. Lighting designer Heather Gilbert intensifies the layering at times with vivid streaks of color.
Costume designer Kathleen Geldard levels the playing field between Lina and Jessie – dressing them both in un-sexy new mom-wear – convenient for nursing and hiding ravished figures. By contrast, Adrienne seems to have come through her birthing ordeal unaffected. Trussed up in a severely belted trench coat and skin-tight leather pants, she is dressed for denial of her new status.
Funny and wise, ironic and illustrative, Studio Theatre’s production Cry It Out shines a light on the struggles experienced by mothers in our society. As we reflect a bit, more fundamental questions arise. Why is America, the wealthiest country on earth, so grossly negligent when it comes to granting adequate leave to parents of any class? Why do we have to make such appalling choices between working and nurturing? And why do we feel betrayal no matter what choice we make? Metzler provides important insights into these questions, and a terrific evening of theater.
[Read John Stoltenberg’s Magic Time! column about Cry It Out.]
Running Time: One hour and 35 minutes, with no intermission.
Cry It Out plays through December 16, 2018, at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th Street NW, Washington DC. For tickets, call the box office at 202-332-3300 or go online.