Where: Northlight Theatre, North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie
When: through June 17
By ANNE SPISELMAN
Northlight Theatre is closing the season with “Cry It Out,” Molly Smith Metzler’s insightful semi-autobiographical play about the delights and demands of new motherhood. Commissioned by the Actors Theatre of Louisville, the one act premiered at the Humana Festival of New American Plays in the spring of 2017, and this is its first outing since. Happily, director Jessica Fisch and her excellent cast illuminate the intricacies of a subject that’s more complicated and crucial than it may at first seem.
Metzler’s starting point is two first-time mothers from different social classes who have nothing in common but bond because of the babies when they run into each other at the Stop & Shop. As it happens, they live next door to each other in rental duplexes in Manorhaven, a section of Port Washington on Long Island, where the playwright once lived. They form a two-woman coffee klatch, meeting daily in Jessie’s backyard, baby monitors with them at all times.
Jessie (Darci Nalepa) is an Ivy League-educated attorney who is up for a partnership after nine years at her law firm but has taken time off to care for her infant, Allison, who almost died at birth. Her husband works in New York, and she’s been feeling very isolated, despite her devotion to her child. Lina (Laura Lapidus), an expansive loud mouth from the South Shore, has an entry level job in hospital admissions and lives with her boyfriend in the house of his mother, Yolanda, who is addicted to boxed wine.
For the first 20 or 30 minutes, Jessie and Lina chat about everything from breast-feeding to library story time and cover all the expected jokes and topics. (The title comes from the practice of letting babies cry rather than picking them up to comfort them.) As they get to know each other, they share their problems. Jessie’s marriage is experiencing some tension. She doesn’t really want to go back to work, but is afraid to tell her husband whose vision for their future depends on two household incomes and her health insurance. Lina has to return to work because her boyfriend doesn’t earn much, and she’s counting the days, worried that Yolanda isn’t up to taking care of the baby.
Their cozy friendship is interrupted by Mitchell (Gabriel Ruiz), who lives in ritzy Sands Point on the cliff overlooking the yard. Impressed by their apparent happiness, he begs them to let his wife, Adrienne (Kristina Valada-Viars), join them one afternoon in the hopes that it will help her adjust to motherhood. Jessie is welcoming; Lina is skeptical, to say the least.
Representing another perspective on the life-work balance, Adrienne is an upscale-jewelry designer who basically regards her daughter, Livia (not “Olivia,” she repeatedly tells the others), as an intrusion on her career and deeply resents Mitchell for his attitudes about how she should be acting and for talking to Jessie and Lina about her. She only appears twice: first in the afternoon get-together when she’s rude and on her iPad and cell phone most of the time, and later when she explodes with rage at Jessie for suggesting to Mitchell that she’s suffering from post partem depression. Her tirade about expectations for women is convincingly delivered by Valada-Viars, though it starts sounding a little like a feminist lecture. And the intensity of her fury makes one wonder why she wanted to have a baby in the first place—and endured several rounds of IVF to do so.
The effect of economic status on the issue is demonstrated not only by Jessie and Lina’s different dilemmas, but also by the fact that Mitchell has the freedom to take as much time off as he wants to be a full-time parent—because he owns the company. Unfortunately for him, his plan to join the coffee klatch is squashed by circumstances beyond his control.
“Cry It Out” actually becomes more interesting as it progresses from comic to serious. In the end, the characters we see (there are several we don’t) don’t get what they want, but this is presented not as a tragedy, but rather simply as life happening. The play’s structure is schematic, but the acting—especially Nalepa’s very natural and sympathetic Jessie—makes us forget the shortcomings. The evening should appeal to anyone who’s been a mother—or father. I haven’t, and it even grew on me.