Mine

 

By Laura Marksmine

Directed by Martie Lyons

Starring Hillary Clemens, Cyd Blakewell, Gabriel Franken, Deborah Ann Smith & Alexandra Main

Presented by The Gift Theatre

The Play About the Changeling Baby born a little premature…

One of two things is happening onstage at The Gift Theatre. Either Mari, the young mother of playwright Laura Marks’s Mine, is suffering a severe psychotic breakdown, or Mari’s newborn infant child has actually been kidnapped by faery folk and replaced in the dead of night with a ‘changeling’ child. And although Marks’s spends considerable time teasingly going back and forth on the question, by the end of Mine, we’re not convinced it even matters.

Far from being just a quaint household superstition, the idea of a ‘changeling’ (the offspring of faeries or trolls swapped out at birth for a human child) has deep psychological roots in European folklore. Long before there was anything like a standardized medical consensus on congenital deformity, developmental disability, or pediatric disease, it was widely held by the peoples of pre-modern Europe that such afflictions were indicative of a ‘faery swap,’ and that if one wished the mortal child to be returned, one had only to abuse (and even torture) the infant changeling in order to force its faery parents to swap it out again. In fact, court records between 1850 and 1900 in Germany, Scandinavia, Great Britain, and Ireland are replete with instances of parents murdering alleged changeling children.

Mine_The Gift Theatre_1Obviously the changeling legend served to provide many a peasant family of Europe a complex, folkloric rationalization for infanticide. In an age and place where families lived and died according to the labor potential of each member, having children who suffered from regressive autism or Williams syndrome (which can actually cause ‘elfin’ facial features) was regarded as a potentially fatal hindrance. More than merely a bedtime story, the legend provided moral cover for mothers and fathers to sever parental bonds with their disabled children, thus retaining a competitive edge for survival.

Hence there is something admittedly compelling about the premise of Marks’s play. Awakening the next morning after an 18-hour home birth—attended by husband Peter (Gabriel Franken), mother Rina (Deborah Ann Smith) and her midwife Joan (Alexandra Main)—Mari shocks everyone when she declares that the baby in the cradle adjacent to the bed is not, in fact, her baby. Riveting enough, but why does Mari think that?

Later in Mine, the midwife diagnoses Mari’s baby with FTT, or ‘failure to thrive,’ as indicated by its inordinate weight loss. Does Mari, in the play’s first few moments, already sense her baby’s infirmity? Is that why she chooses to renounce her as an alleged changeling? To preemptively save herself the trauma of losing a child? Maybe. Then again, perhaps the baby’s weight loss stems from neglect. From Mari’s inability—even refusal—to get close to the child. That is, maybe the baby’s so-called ‘failure to thrive’ is the consequence of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Strangely enough, these sort of questions aren’t much on Marks’s mind. For instead of exploring the complex set of emotional circumstances which might lead Mari to this radical break with her maternal instincts, the focus of Mine is geared rather toward entertaining the possibility that Mari’s delusions might actually be real. Hence the most lively scenes in the play are those between Mari and Amy (played by the absorbing Cyd Blakewell), a People magazine-reading faery mom who tells Mari that she’s the one Mine_The Gift Theatre_8who took her baby.

Tellingly enough, even if Amy were proven to be only a figment of Mari’s shattered psyche, her relationship with Mari would still be the most engrossing in the play. There’s something strange in the way Amy’s sense of style and personal address are almost mirrored opposite to Mari’s in every way. Where Mari is conservative, inward, and anxious, Amy’s kitschy necklace, bright clothes and no-nonsense style suggest something quite different. As though Mari were outwardly projecting the kind of woman she could never be—that is, the kind of woman actually capable of loving the changeling for who she is. But again, these kind of subjective interpretations are largely abandoned in Mine, perhaps because they compromise the (far less fecund) scenario that Amy, faery folk, and changeling children are actually real.

Given these tendencies, there’s thus precious little time spent exploring Mari’s inner life. Scenes featuring her at home managing more day-to-day concerns (i.e. a calcifying and undersexed relationship with her husband, neurotic ambivalences toward her dippy mother, a latent anxiety disorder, etc.) feel tedious and boring. Actions mostly consist of getting in and out of bed, changing in and out of clothes, and living one’s life according to a series of scheduled appointments. In the banality of her everyday affairs, Marks point seems to be that Mari is just like any other modern mother, but deliberate efforts to make her appear ‘normal’ only make her look flat and two-dimensional.

Even Stephen H. Carmody’s scenic design—featuring a large marital bed placed center stage— reinforces our image of Mari and Peter as fairly typical middle-Americans. Missing from their bedroom are any flashy instances of discriminating color. There are no works of art on the walls and no books on display. Their bedroom is stocked with an infant’s crib, a couple side lamps, and a clock—presumably so Mari can count the seconds between feedings or between the next appointment with her midwife. And for better of worse, Marti Lyons’s direction takes the commonplace events of Mari’s life at face-value, preferring a lackadaisical, even hands-off, pacing to one more aggressively probing or demanding of the moment. Thus even at a brisk 80 minutes, Mine seems to go on a bit too long.

Mine_The Gift Theatre_6Again, Hillary Clemens is a highly capable actress, and even if she’s not able to surpass the delimitations placed on Mari by Marks’s script, she’s at the very least able to give us a movingly convincing portrait of a woman incapable of truly knowing her own mind. And Cyd Blakewell as the faery woman Amy manages to stop just short of camp, conveying the character’s own sincere maternal struggles without having to sacrifice her quirkily dry sense of humor. Gabriel Franken, Alexandra Main, and Deborah Ann Smith give serviceable performances each, though with regrettably less ability to convey much beyond their characters’ ancillary functions.

Marks’s recent Off-Broadway success Bethany, which opened this January at New York’s City Center, is also a play which employs gothic extremes to explore the frenzied anxieties of motherhood, and both it and Mine are equally driven by highly charged and provocative premises. Thus retaining every faith in Marks’s abilities to bring powerful stories to fruition, we nevertheless think Mine might still have some growing to do.

SOMEWHAT RECOMMENDED

Reviewed by Anthony J. Mangini

Reviewed Monday, June 17th, 2013.

Running time is approximately 1 hour and 20 minutes with no intermission.

Mine runs until August 11th, 2013. The Gift Theater is located at 4802 N. Milwaukee Ave. For tickets call (773) 283-7071 or visit www.thegifttheatre.org. Check out their Theater in Chicago listing at http://www.theatreinchicago.com/mine/6434/.

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