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Writers put their experiences 'In Mother Words'

Lisa Loomer, Michele Lowe and Marco Pennette discuss the monologues they contributed to the show, now at the Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater.

March 16, 2011|By Margaret Gray
  • Michele Lowe, right, wrote several of the monologues in the Geffen Playhouse production of "In Mother Words." Here with her daughter, Isadora Porte, 14.
Michele Lowe, right, wrote several of the monologues in the Geffen Playhouse… (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles…)

Did Medea's sons have play dates? Did Gertrude call out, "Use your words, Hamlet!" when her toddler got grabby in the sandbox? What was Amanda Wingfield's rapport with her obstetrician like? At what age did Mother Courage start her daughter Kattrin on solids?

Such questions apparently didn't interest Sophocles, Shakespeare, Williams or Brecht. More recently, writers have noticed that the ordinary joys, disappointments, doubts, grief, heroism and self-sacrifice that are part of every mother's everyday experience make pretty good stories. Mommy blogs proliferate, we have print anthologies of writing by mothers, and now there is "In Mother Words," an evening of monologues by 14 playwrights, at the Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater at the Geffen Playhouse.

Susan Rose and Joan Stein, both veteran theater producers, came up with the idea for "In Mother Words" four years ago, after Rose saw "Bridge and Tunnel," Sarah Jones' one-woman show about immigrants in New York. "I walked out and thought, the other universal theme that's never really been explored in the theater is motherhood," remembers Rose.

Rose and Stein commissioned monologues from writers they knew and admired. Through a number of workshops and a production last March at Hartford Stage in Connecticut, the show's current form emerged, 20 short plays covering motherhood from childbirth (a "fugue" of delivery stories by Michele Lowe) through old age (a story by David Cale about a man caring for his Alzheimer's-stricken mother).

In between, playwrights take on the perspectives of, among other characters, brand-new mothers (Cheryl L. West, Annie Weisman), an adoptive mother (Theresa Rebeck), the mother of an autistic child (Claire LaZebnik), a working mother's Irish nanny (Lisa Ramirez), the mother of a soldier (Jessica Goldberg), a Muslim mother (Lameece Issaq), a would-be stepmother (Luanne Rice), a great-grandmother (Beth Henley), and a gay father who conceived a child with his partner using an egg donor and a surrogate (Marco Pennette).

Lisa Loomer initially contributed an excerpt from her play "Living Out," a phone call between a Latina nanny in America and her daughter in El Salvador. Because they had another piece in the voice of a nanny, Rose and Stein asked Loomer for a new monologue, one covering the toddler years.

Looking back at her son's toddlerhood (he's now 13), Loomer confronted an old secret: She didn't always feel comfortable with other moms. So she wrote "New in the Motherhood," featuring the heroine "Odd Mom," who finds herself on a park bench between two perky supermoms with daughters named Dakota and Orleans who squeal about each other's diaper bags.

Although Odd Mom's diaper bag wins these moms' approval, her cigarette and her self-deprecating jokes don't. Nor does her energetic little boy. "Must be one of the nannies' kids," the supermoms speculate.

"I honestly had no idea if anybody would relate," says Loomer. "In any society or culture, people ask those questions: Do I fit in? How am I doing? It happens at an office, a university, I theater … I guess it's just a surprise to find out it happens to mothers too."

"Women used to bury their negative feelings," says Michele Lowe, who contributed two monologues as well as the five "fugues" to "In Mother Words." "I think they lived in fear of being judged. When someone else says, 'It's OK, I feel the same way,' it makes the feelings so much less frightening, less monumental. Also, I think the voice of motherhood has become more diverse. We're seeing that there isn't only one way to do it."

Lowe is the mother of a daughter; her monologue, "Queen Esther," spoken by the mother of a little boy who wants to dress up like the Jewish heroine for the Purim carnival, is not autobiographical, but it is informed, she says, by her own protective feelings for her child. She harvested some of the anecdotes in the fugues from her own experience, some from other moms at their children's birthday parties, and some from her imagination.

Pennette, a writer for "Desperate Housewives," says that his monologue, "If We're Using a Surrogate," is completely autobiographical. "Down to the letter," he adds. So accurately does it tell the story of the birth of his first daughter, now 7, that he and his partner, Steve Rabiner, included it in her private-school applications. (She got in.)

So Pennette and Rabiner really did own the suede sofa from Armani Casa that, in the play, their gay friends invoke as an argument against having children. (They have since traded it in for a pull-out sleeper.) Now the parents of three daughters, each with the same egg donor and a different surrogate, they hear variations on the question that triggers the monologue — the mall Santa who asks, "Have you been a good girl for Mommy?" — all the time.

"Everywhere we go, people ask, 'So where's Mommy?'" says Pennette. "When the girls were really tiny I'd say, 'Oh, she's home.' I didn't want to get into the entire thing. But when they're old enough to hear and understand you, you can't get away with that. You become an educator to everybody."

But Pennette, who has become comfortable as the gay dad in a flock of moms both in the theater and in life, acknowledges that the education works both ways: "It's nice to have a community like that, especially with the serious questions, like are you vaccinating your child, who's your pediatrician. Listen, I certainly wasn't turning to the dads."

And of course, says Pennette, "I do story lines from these women on 'Desperate Housewives.' I mean, how can you not? As a writer, you've got to use it all."

In about 20 years, give or take, these playwrights' children will be ready to tell their own stories. Stay tuned for "In Mother Words: The Next Generation."

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