The Maternal Instinct
nytheatre.com review by Jack Hanley
July 23, 2006
Monica Bauer's The Maternal Instinct stays unflaggingly on the eponymous topic—beautifully exemplifying it empirically as well as emotionally. The play is superbly executed by the ensemble of actors. A successful ensemble is made up of actors who invest as much in every role of the play as they invest in their own role. When this happens, as it happens in Bauer's play, I experience that eerily magical feeling of being a voyeur of private lives, so private I feel compelled, out of respect, to turn away. But I don't—I have a ticket; I get to watch. It's theatre at its best.
The play begins with Sarah (played by Alisha Jansky, who adroitly combines sensitivity with self-assurance) giving a birthday for her wife, Lillian (this is not the future, this is Massachusetts.) At the party Sarah reveals to her wife she desperately wants to have a child. Her desire has become, she claims, an intense biological need. Lillian is adamantly opposed. Her reasons are complex but are gracefully untangled by Bauer. Karen Woodward Massey skillfully reveals Lillian in bits and pieces. Lillian is a biochemist at MIT (and also a recovering alcoholic) devoted to her research on, as it happens, the gene for the maternal instinct. The science is intriguingly explored; presented accurately while not going over the heads of lay audience members such as myself.
Also attending the party are Lillian's best friend and colleague, Fred (Stephen Cooper) and Lillian's sister (Rena Baskin). They are unsure of whose side to take, but they ultimately take Sarah's. But the wives for weeks remain stubbornly at odds.
Tangential moments of the play are dutifully limited to character development; they never distract the narrative arc. Melissa J. Wentworth's direction has a near-tactile smoothness. Every momentary glance or curl of the brow is summoned by thoughtful intention. The elegant transitions between scenes happen almost invisibly. And special note should be given to Elise Audrey Manning who plays an aphasic drunk. In her garbled language she fully develops her character.
Surprising things happen in the weeks following the party. Believing Sarah will leave Lillian if Lillian does not yield to her wife's need, Fred (who deeply loves Lillian) agrees to impregnate Sarah without her wife's consent or knowledge. Even Lillian's sister conspires in the betrayal because she believes (as does Fred) that her sister will return to the bottle if Sarah leaves her.
Was Lillian betrayed or was the lie an act of love? Can a lie ever be an act of love? Unfortunately, these questions are answered too easily in the final scene, thereby compromising the credibility of the story. It's an ending that promulgates a world I find repulsive. And it left me judging the playwright's ethics rather than her characters'. Nevertheless, despite the ending, The Maternal Instinct is a play well worth seeing precisely because it makes you ask questions about your own personal standard of ethics. Again, that's theatre at its best.