‘The Mothers’ at The Gift Theatre is a Dystopian Sendup of Mommy Influencer Culture

The first act of The Mothers, now playing at The Gift Theatre, is a satirical knife, slipped between the ribs by playwright Anna Ouyang Moench. The second act unflinchingly twists that knife, resulting in an eviscerating theatrical experience adroitly directed by Halena Kays.

The Mothers begins as a dystopian sendup of mommy influencer culture. Set in a hyper-saturated magenta playroom (designed by Lauren Nichols), the caregivers coo at their unseen offspring, placed amongst the audience. At the center of the story is Meg (a propulsive Stephanie Shum), a former lawyer who left her high-powered career for suburban stay-at-home-mom bliss. Meg’s new BFF Ariana (Caren Blackmore, effervescent) exudes an aura of maternal expertise that’s immediately complicated by a casual anti-vaxxer quip. She clashes with Meg’s best friend from law school, Vick (an assured Krystel McNeil) who’s come to visit, leaving her own baby behind. Vick finds no solidarity in her attempts to juggle a demanding legal career and the early months of motherhood. McNeil’s grounded energy provides an effective countercurrent to the electric duo of Shum and Blackmore.

 Around the periphery is Gladys (Lynette Li), the wallflower nanny, and the one dad, Ty. Portrayed by Alex Iryes, Ty is also the only white person in the play. In this world, people of the global majority have greater access to structural power and privilege, and Ty meekly accepts a series of cringey-yet-hilarious microaggressions about “beige” people. 

The first act has the vibe of scrolling through a social media feed. The dialogue ranges from pumping breast milk in public to women’s intellectual capital, propelled by the actors’ magnetism (and Gaby Labotka’s fight choreography). The comedy is frequently unsettling; when the babies arrive onstage they’re embodied by oversized teddy bears, heightening the play’s surreality. Moench gets in barb after barb about the absurdities of parenting writ large while revealing ever more disconcerting truths about these specific parents, and their attitudes around child-rearing.

Outside the overpoweringly pink playroom, society is unraveling. This is not Barbie’s Dreamhouse. This is Barbie’s Impending Apocalypse Nightmarehouse. Senators have been executed; radiation helmets are a standard household item. Vick struggles to interpolate this reality into her life and her identity as a new mother. At one point, she poses the question about the ethics of bringing a baby into a world that’s so broken. Meg and Ariana dismiss her existential grappling with giggles; their coping mechanism is to willfully ignore the news instead of working to build a better future for their children. 

So much of this first half is about the impossibility of comprehending atrocity—genocide, femicide, the wide-scale erosion of human rights, forced displacement, unlivable economic conditions, the climate crisis—both because of their intangible immensity and because of the entropic fragmentation of our own attention. It’s a study in how we compartmentalize to get through the day. The second act, by contrast, is about how we may respond when the atrocities arrive at our doorstep.

A sharp schism divides acts one and two, bridged by a series of side-splitting, unhinged monologues that lead to intermission. Iryes delivers an operatic performance that underscores the depth of Ty’s emasculation. He’s not unemployed!—he reminds us as he describes the size of his genitals—he freelances. After intermission, we descend almost immediately into full-on Sarah Kane-esque Theatre of Catastrophe. There’s no more theorizing about gender or race, only the brutal exercise of power, oppression, and degradation through the control of resources.

This tonal tectonic shift, I would argue, is not the play’s liability but rather its point. We are laughing our way into oblivion. The horrors of the second half are the direct consequence of the comedy in the first. The dehumanization is simultaneously hard to watch and hard to look away from. The laughter from earlier scenes becomes a bone in one’s throat.

Compartmentalization isn’t intrinsically a bad thing—it’s necessary to functioning in a profoundly dysfunctional society. In fact, The Mothers doesn’t offer an alternative way of moving through the world. That’s not a critique. It’s not a playwright’s job to solve intractable problems. In moments, the script points to what Naomi Klein termed disaster capitalism: a strategy where crises compound in a way that leaves a populace unable to do anything but respond to what’s immediately in front of it. The culture of response that emerges creates an opportunity for hegemonic neoliberal forces to exploit a destabilized society.

The Mothers posits that we’ve lost the ability to see other people’s children as fully human. Moench underscores our complicity via desensitization, apathy, and the commodification of our attention. How much more of our own humanity do we have to lose when we find ourselves face-to-face with the unconscionable?

Bias alert: Collaborated with Stephanie Shum and Gaby Labotka.

The Mothers runs at The Gift Theatre through March 3rd.

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At Rescripted, we believe in arts criticism from multiple perspectives. Read what other Chicago critics are saying about The Mothers at TheatreinChicago.com!

Vick – Krystel McNeil
Meg – Stephanie Shum
Arianna – Caren Blackmore
Gladys – Lynnette Li
Ty – Alex Iryes
Understudies – Paige Jordan (Vick), Carolyn Plurad (Meg), Kandace Mack (Arianna), Georgia Dib (Gladys) and Matthew Martin (Ty)

Playwright – Anna Ouyang Moench
Director – Halena Kays
Scenic Designer – Lauren Nichols
Lighting Designer – Josiah Croegaert
Master Electrician – Diane Fairchild
Dialect Coach – Neal Ruperto Davis
Stage Manager – Sarah Luse
Production Manager – Jennifer Aparicio
Technical Director – David Preis
Costume Designer – Gregory Graham
Sound Designer & Original Music – Jeffrey Levin
Properties Designer – Lily Anna Berman
Intimacy / Violence Director – Gaby Labotka
Assistant Stage Manager – Lili Bjorklund
Assistant Violence Director – Thomas Russell
Assistant Intimacy Director – Alyssa Vera Ramos
Casting / Access – Emjoy Gavino

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