My son, George, was born by an emergency c-section at 36 weeks when my placenta deteriorated. I had stopped feeling him kick the day before and knew something was wrong. If I hadn’t paid attention to what was happening in my body, my obstetrician told me later, he would have been stillborn. When I tell the story 16 years later, I still cry—and I brought these memories to the Philadelphia premiere of Cry It Out at Simpatico.
I was fortunate to have had a three-month maternity leave from the nonprofit where I was working at the time—cobbled together mostly from vacation and comp time from my working overtime during my pregnancy. When the three months were over and I dropped George off at a nearby daycare center for the first time, I went to my office, opened my computer, and wept.
Friends and colleagues said it would get easier every day, but it didn’t. It got worse. After a month, I left that job and took a part-time position that was mostly evening and weekend hours so my husband could be with George while I worked. I ramped up my freelance writing, too, and landed a book deal for a manuscript that I had been working on for several years. But even with that, our monthly budget was tight—but I was happy and grateful and never regret the choice that I was fortunate enough to make.
The three mothers we meet in Simpatico’s Cry It Out are all adjusting to new parenthood—the loneliness and the joy, the exhaustion and the outpouring of love they feel for their babies, the worries about money, work, breastfeeding, partnership, and identity. Playwright Molly Smith Meltzer (whose TV credits include Orange is the New Black and Shameless) dramatizes the struggles of three new moms who live near each other in Long Island but come from dramatically different socioeconomic worlds.
Jessie (Angelica Jackson), an upper-middle-class lawyer, deeply bonded with her daughter after a traumatic birth experience, doesn’t want to return to her corporate firm. Lina (Brandi Burgess) is a working-class mom who’s the chief breadwinner in her family and knows she has no choice but to go back to work when her leave is over. Adrienne (Anita Holland) is a wealthy jewelry designer whose full-time nanny has a master’s degree in early childhood education. Adrienne’s elite Sands Point residential enclave literally looks down on Jessie and Lina’s homes.
In baby-monitor range
The story follows Lina and Jessie’s backyard friendship: they share coffee while their babies sleep, meeting in the middle of their yards where their baby monitors still work. Their friendship might be unlikely if they met in other circumstances, but the bond of needing someone to talk to when you’re alone in the house for hours with your baby makes for a fast—and realistic—friendship.
Both Jackson and Burgess make Meltzer’s dialogue feel natural; it’s easy to believe that their intimacy grows with each coffee date. The audience laughs easily and cheers these mothers on. In the hands of a lesser actor, Lina could border on a stereotype, but Burgess brings her to life with nuance. When she sobs, sitting in her hospital scrubs, I heard audible sobs coming from the audience, too. Jackson’s portrayal of Jessie brings us into her humanity, the pain she holds from her daughter’s birth, and her struggles to relate to her husband ever since their views on parenting became dramatically different.
I would have loved to see more of Adrienne, the character who struggles the most with becoming a mom. Holland’s performance is equally powerful—Adrienne is obnoxious to the other women when her husband, Marshall, arranges for her to join them for coffee, but we learn more about her story of postpartum pain, physical and emotional, later in the play. Meltzer chooses to tell Adrienne’s story both through her perspective and Marshall’s—he is the only partner (the wonderful, energetic Newton Buchanan) of the three couples whom we meet.
Real and relatable
Cry It Out spotlights the difficult economic realities that govern parents’ choices in our country, where there is no right to paid or unpaid parental leave. Just to our north, the Canadian government offers paid leave for one or both parents; new parents in the UK get a whole year of leave, of which 39 weeks are paid. But here, as Cry It Out portrays, only a few high-income people, like Adrienne, actually have a choice about whether and how to return to work.
Kudos to Simpatico for partnering with PAAL, the Parent Artist Advisory League, to create a family-friendly rehearsal schedule and childcare options during rehearsals and for creating special events during the show’s run, including a benefit for the Maternity Care Coalition.
Under Tamanya M.M. Garza’s skillful direction, Cry It Out is real and relatable, funny and poignant. Kudos to costume designer Ariel (Liudi) Wang, who dresses the characters perfectly, down to the recognizable postpartum jeggings. Cry It Out is the first play that I’ve seen that elevates the difficult choices that I and so many people in this country need to make after the birth of our children, turning this scenario into the drama that it is.
All performances of Simpatico’s Cry It Out are pay-what-you-decide.
What, When, Where
Cry It Out. By Molly Smith Meltzer, directed by Tamanya M.M. Garza. Through June 23, 2019, at the Louis Bluver Theatre at the Drake, 302 S. Hicks Street, Philadelphia. (267) 437-7529 or simpaticotheatre.org.
The Drake Theatre complex is fully accessible. Wheelchair seating, companion seating, and mobility and audiovisual-accessible seating are available for all performances. For more information, email [email protected]. The Drake has ADA-compliant gender-neutral restrooms.