Supercilious matriarchs test the boundaries of friendship and utilitarianism during an apocalyptic crisis in “Mothers,” presented by The Gift Theatre, written by Anna Ouyang Moench and directed by Halena Kays. Following a disastrous turn of events, a benign and unassuming pink playroom for toddlers turns into a nightmarish hellscape, emphasized by scenic design by Lauren Nichols and lighting design by Josiah Croegaert.
Three mothers spend a day chatting about the joys and tribulations of child rearing as their kiddos, represented by stuffed toy bears, frolic out of view. Vick (Krystel McNeil) takes a break from work and family to visit an old friend, Meg (Stephanie Shum), who moved away but made a new best friend in Ariana (Caren Blackmore).
Each of the three women is an archetype. Ariana is the modern mom, sententiously offering ostensible wisdom about parenting that she heard through the grapevine—“Well, I read that…”—and is the polar opposite of Vick, a second-wave feminist who puts her career before all else. Meg is obsequious and servile, taking the side of whichever of her friends got the last word in an argument. As planes fly noisily overhead—“Are we along a flightpath?”—their catty quarrels about breastfeeding in public, vaccines, toxic masculinity and “fruity” kids’ names reach a fever pitch as tempers flare and voices compete with the growing sound of jet engines.
Meandering about them is milquetoast stay-at-home dad, Ty (Alex Ireys), who deflects emasculation by announcing “But I still freelance,” and stoic nanny, Gladys (Lynnette Li), who spends the first act mostly in silence while performing light calisthenics at opposite ends of the room. Both kowtow to the trio of matriarchs, that is, until a catastrophic event turns the tables.
Playwright Moench is a masterful worldbuilder. Plot points that others might expound into the crux of the story are only touched upon and left to the imagination. In this universe the systemically perceived hierarchy of race is reversed, with Vick, who is Black, mentioning to Ty, who is white, that she is surprised how few “beiges” she sees in this town, and that she is a staunch “beige ally.” Here, intersectionality equals social power, and it’s fun to wonder what else is different about this world.
Similarly treated is how the women are plunged into dystopia. Something happened, but we’re never told what, and that’s fine. We’re given just enough hints to form our own conclusions, and as Hollywood milks the subject dry, the imagination does a better job than the best attempts of any multimillion-dollar motion picture.
The adage of “mother knows best” is put to the test—when the degenerate armies of the apocalypse come for you, will mother be enough? “Mothers” asks this question and more, with a gruesome twist ending that chills to the bone.
“Mothers” is presented by The Gift Theatre and runs through March 3 at Filament Theatre, 4041 North Milwaukee. Tickets are $35-$45 ($15 for students and veterans) at thegifttheatre.org.