What exactly does it mean to be the “perfect mother?” This is a question many non-mothers think they know the answer to that also haunts new mothers, terrified of making the wrong decision in terms of what is best for their child. Cry It Out, a play by Molly Smith Metzler currently in its west coast premiere at the Echo Theater Company in Los Angeles, is a poignant and thoughtful contemplation of new parenthood and the effect class and privilege has on the options available for raising a child in the present day United States.
Directed by Lindsay Allbaugh, the play is set on Long Island in the town of Port Washington, which is unique in that it represents an economic dichotomy—a large rental community is home to lower and middle class families, while just up the hill is a wealthy community of sprawling estates. Jessie (Jackie Chung) is a new mother who recently moved there from Manhattan with her husband. She is close to becoming a partner at the law firm where she has worked as an attorney for 9 years, but as the end of her maternity leave approaches, she begins to feel more and more strongly that she should be a stay-at-home mom—although she hasn’t quite figured out how to present this decision to her husband, a planner who was raised by wealthy parents and has a vision of a “ten year plan” involving beach homes and international vacations.
Going a bit stir crazy during her maternity leave, Jessie invites her next door neighbor, Lina (Megan Ketch), over for coffee one day. Lina is also a new mother, but while Jessie is comfortably upper middle class Lina and her boyfriend are living with his alcoholic mother to make ends meet, and she has no choice but to go back to her entry level job in hospital administration soon. Although their lives and backgrounds are very different, they bond over being new mothers and new residents of Port Washington and become fast friends, meeting in Jessie’s backyard multiple times a day for coffee to vent about their relationships and the struggles of caring for a baby. Jessie is put-together and occasionally awkward, while Lina is outspoken and opinionated.
Jessie and Lina’s routine is thrown off one day when Mitchell (Brian Henderson), one of their neighbors in the wealthy community that literally looks down upon their rental homes, shows up unexpectedly. He has been watching their daily coffee ritual and asks if they could invite his wife, Adrienne (Emily Swallow), a fellow new mother whom he feels has been having a really hard time. Adrienne, who has a whole household staff to help with her baby, could not be less interested in Jessie and Lina’s friendship. But is she actually as disconnected from her baby as Mitchell makes it seem, or does her experience of motherhood just come with different challenges?
Metzler’s script is honest, conversational, humorous, and heartfelt, perfectly representing three unique and distinct women. The effect economic status has on childcare options is not a topic that is regularly discussed in mainstream media, but is a huge influence on the options or lack thereof new parents have. Lina, Jessie, and Adrienne represent three distinct points on the spectrum of privilege, and no matter how much they may share in terms of nursing woes, naptime rituals, or attending story time at the library, there is also a somewhat insurmountable disconnect.
Chung is fantastic as Jessie, a complicated woman who always has the best of intentions, but sometimes struggles to see things from another’s point of view. From the outside, she may look like “the perfect mother,” but that is hardly how she feels. Her dynamic with Ketch evolves beautifully throughout the play. At first the two don’t entirely know what to make of each other, but they find a deep and special bond in their loneliness. Ketch’s Lina is the most self-assured of the three women, rarely questioning her beliefs or the type of person she is, which makes it all the more powerful in the moments when her insecurities seep through. Henderson and Swallow are also terrific, never sharing a scene together and yet painting a clear portrait of their marriage, but this story truly belongs to Jessie and Lina.
For a narrative that starts out fairly straightforward, there are some twists and surprises along the way, although nothing that feels too shocking or grandiose. Cry It Out is an intensely human story laden with emotion that should be cathartic for those who are parents, and informative for those who are not. Moments of quiet heartbreak are skillfully interwoven with humor and levity. The play shows great empathy towards all of its characters, reminds us not to judge a book by its cover, and might even make you rethink what it truly means for a child to be born “lucky.”
Cry It Out runs at the Atwater Village Theatre through August 19th. The running time is 90 minutes, no intermission. Performances are Fridays, Saturdays, and Mondays at 8pm and Sundays at 4pm. Tickets are $34, with the exception of Monday nights which are pay-what-you-want. To purchase tickets, click here.