Theatre Mirror Reviews - "The Maternal Instinct"

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note: entire contents copyright 2006 by Larry Stark

"The Maternal Instinct"

by Monica Bauer
Directed by Melissa J. Wentworth

Set, Costume & Property Design by Loann West
Lighting Design by P. J. Strachman
Assistant Stage Manager Roy Siuza
Stage Manager Zele Avradopoulos

Sarah............Alisha Jansky
Lillian...Karen Wodward Massey
Fred............Stephen Cooper
Emma...............Rena Baskin
Terry............Elise Manning

The Out of The Blue Theater Company is an actor-producing group that Actors' Equity allows to perform so long as they tell very few people they're doing it. They have been helping Monica Bauer workshop and expand "The Maternal Instinct" until it now stretches thirteen scenes in two acts, beginning with the mask of Comedy in place and ending firmly in that of Tragedy. The slide from one to the other is slow and subtle, but it hinges on the fact that the two central characters are dead set in their convictions: Sarah wants to have a child, but Lillian will have none of it. A funny situation for two lesbians deeply in love with one another, right? Well, only for a while.

Loann West's set and P. J. Strachman's lights define three playing areas. Center-stage-right is the living-room where Rena Baskin, playing Lillian's married-mother sister, gives her the credit-card choice of sperm-donors --- even though Lillian is proud of her lab-work that has bred mice whose maternal instincts can be turned on and off like a faucet. Stephen Cooper plays the old family friend and lab-coordinator who offers his own sperm when Sarah decides to impregnate secretly on the grounds that Lil will love it once she gets used to it. Fat Chance!

Far-stage-right is the white-board of complicated equations that apparently prove Lillian and Fred are dedicated scientists --- though nearly-virgin Fred admits to impregnating her lover because he's secretly loved Lillian for years and is willing to do anything to make her happy --- or, apparently, UNhappy --- by giving her significant-other a child.

Alisha Jansky's Sarah and Karen Woodward Massey's Lillian eloquently evoke both their love and their conflict. They argue, they reason, they fight --- and it drives Lillian, the recovered alcoholic --- back to the bottle. Neither can compromise, and Sarah isn't, of course, just a Little pregnant.

The area stage-left is for a park-bench within sight of the Swan-Boats where the couple --- singly or together --- and Fred go to think, to meditate, or just to stew. It's the bench where they first met, when Sarah's class of autistic children brought her in contact with the meditating scientist and changed both their lives. Now, however, the bench is haunted by a permanently-pickled alcoholic street-person (Elise Manning) who can only whisper the single word "Ouch" --- inflecting and repeating it so it Does communicate, and even morphs into a quasi-rendition of "Take Me Out To the Ball Game" at one point. This dusty and fuzzy-eyed young sprite is herself pregnant --- dangerously so by the suddenly bloody last scene of the play.

There are powerful themes and conflicts and dialogue here, as well as glaring omissions and missed opportunities. Though Lillian proudly insists she can manipulate mother-mice into nonchalantly eating their young for breakfast, that idea never reappears in the play. Neither Lillian's researches nor Sarah's lifelong dedication to teaching children are ever more than mentioned. And none of these ultra-modern liberals do anything for the street-person save chase her away with money for more booze. The bickering beloveds have their feet, on this one major subject, set so firmly in concrete that whatever love they profess for one another cannot bridge the gap. At the final curtain, it's true that Lillian and the hemorrhaging Terry have bonded, but is this enough of a resolution of their adamant attitudes toward procreation?

The fact is that Monica Bauer's writing is compellingly interesting --- and a scene in which the near-virgin and the lesbian contemplate in horror and disgust their choice between the Baster or ... well, the entire scene is, take my word for it, funny as hell! Even the comedy/tragedy effect of acts one and two is much less jarring than it at first may sound. But perhaps one more major re-write will be in order before Bauer's play emerges fully grown. To that end, Out of The Blue, Director Melissa J. Wentworth, the excellent cast, and even Actors' Equity must be thanked for the care and thoroughness of this production. And I encourage all lovers of theater to take part in the creative process by seeing the play, then talking with the cast and director and playwright about it. That's the way good plays get better!

( a k a larry stark )
Date: Tue, 04 Apr 2006 11:12:05 -0400
Subject: Re: thanks from Monica Bauer

Dear Larry:
God bless, you have my full permission to use the whole letter, or any part thereof. Playwriting is, in fact, a process. We work with a moving target. And thanks for your continued support; it means a lot. If you use it, I'd love it if you'd make clear to your readers that I wrote my letter to you BEFORE I read your review; it's a very different thing had I written it as a sort of explanation or defense as a way of refuting your review. I don't think playwrights should argue with reviewers. If you make that clear, I'd love it if you used my letter!
Grateful Playwright,

Date: Mon, 03 Apr 2006 17:52:10 -0400 (EDT)
Subject: thanks from Monica Bauer

Dear Larry:
I'm deliberately sending this to you before I have any idea what your reviewer is going to say about my show. I just wanted to let you know that it meant a lot to me that you came to support an unknown playwright, even as you are recovering the full use of your knee! And I wanted to share the story of how the ending of the play changed between the time you saw it, and the time Will Stackman saw it!

True story: after the Friday night show, Leslie Dillon made mention to me that the ending seemed wrong. Why was Lillian suddenly praying? Did I intend to make the play all about religion? This got me thinking, and the next morning Melissa (who's the best director I've ever worked with) and I talked about a new ending. We put it into the show that night (courtesy of our flexible actors, Karen Woodward Massey and Elise Manning), and that's the ending Will Stackman saw on Sunday.

So now, Lillian doesn't pray at all. She takes the homeless woman's hand, and reassures her that "Sarah will be coming any minute. We're going to wait for Sarah. I know she's coming. She loves me, did I tell you that?" All these lines were already in the play. On Saturday morning I added one more line, which is now the last line of the play: "We're having a baby, too".

This finishes Lillian's arc, and is far more satisfying. Don't you just love new theater, watching it grow?
Grateful Playwright,
Monica Bauer

"The Maternal Instinct" (30 March - 16 April)
Boston Playwrights' Theatre, 949 Commonwealth Avenue, BOSTON MA


From: "will stackman"
Subject: Quicktake - "The Maternal Instinct" by Monica Bauer
Date: Sun, April 2 , 6:49 PM

     The Out of the Blue Co. is currently presenting their annual Actors' Equity Showcase production of a new play at the Boston Playwrights' Theatre. This year it's "The Maternal Instinct" by BPT alumna Monica Bauer. The script began as a 10 minute script called "Ouch" and has grown into a two act full-length play. Still seemingly in development, not all of its scenes seem quite fully grown. Moreover, it's hard to decide whether this is a 21st century family drama with comic moments, or a very dark comedy of contemporary manners.
     The principle characters are a married lesbian couple--this being Massachusetts. Alisha Jansky plays Sarah, a special ed teacher, the wife of Lillian, an ambitious professor of biochemistry at one of our universities, played by Karen Woodward Massey. Sarah wants a baby, Lillian is unalterably opposed. Lillian's sister, Emma, who has two kids of her own, played by Rena Baskin, has been conspiring with Sarah to find a donor. Eventually this role falls to Lillian's friend and mentor, Fred, the head of her department, played by Stephen Cooper. Eachmember of this unlikely menage a trois has an encounter in the Public Garden with an incoherent drunken woman whose vocabulary consisted mostly of the word "Ouch." Played by Elise Manning,this homeless souse, who is also pregnant, provides a catalyst for the final action, or so it seems. Like many current scripts, things are left rather up in the air as the lights fade out for the last time.
     Production values on a set by Loann West are basic but sufficient. A full-scale production for this 13 scene play might require a revolve and a small side wagon, but this version survives without them. The ensemble acquits itself well under Melissa J. Wentworth's direction, going for realistic rather than comic timing in most cases. The viewpoint of the play does veer from almost satirical to realistic emotions with no clear line of action, however. Still, the social problems it explores, and the deeper question of how family background influences adult relationships, are interestingly developed, worth attention--and further rewrites.
"The Maternal Instinct" by Monica Bauer, March 30 - April 16
Out of the Blue Theatre Co. at Boston Playwrights' Theatre
949 Comm. Ave. Allston, (866) 811 - 4111 Out of the Blue

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