Partly that’s because both the setting and the subject of Lord of the Underworld’s Home for Unwed Mothers, having its world premiere at Skylight Theatre, is what has been called the “baby scoop era.” That was the period between World War II and the sexual revolution when the uncontested, white patriarchal authority of the middle-class family routinely dealt with the era’s spike in teenage pregnancies through the forced separation and adoption of the child from its underage mother.
The play is structured as a fancifully time-warped epistolary exchange between mother Dee (the searing Corryn Cummins, in a masterfully heartfelt performance) and daughter Corie (a forceful Michaela Slezak). Adrian Gonzalez and Amy Harmon are the play’s strikingly versatile, quick-change chorus, effortlessly emboding the parents, boyfriends and psychologists who inhabit both of the women’s worlds.
Act 1 mostly deals with Dee’s insistently archetypal, circa-1964, middle-American brush with motherhood. Hill puts Dee through the paces of a postwar ideology that saw reproductive freedom as a bothersome impediment to social mobility. But anybody passingly familiar with Hollywood’s unwed-teen-mother melodramas of the 1950s and early ’60s — or who remembers Madonna’s politically suspect teen-pregnancy hit “Papa Don’t Preach” — may find themselves squirming over how the play develops pathos with what seems an unquestioned and one-sided embrace of the inviolable right of witless 16-year-olds to bear children.
Act 2 does little to allay such misgivings. That’s when the narrative’s POV abruptly shifts to Corie, as she brings Dee up to date on what has happened since their one-and-only 10 minutes together outside a 1964 delivery room. The trauma of their parting has marked the daughter’s life as deeply as it has the mother’s. But a series of adoptions gone bad and an adolescence spent in children’s homes have left the now–25-year-old Corie an angry, cynical and stridently anti-maternal girl.
When the two do finally meet, it is only to have Corie, who is now a singer in her new boyfriend’s death-metal band, repeatedly act out her anger with Dee in shockingly wounding ways. And while Hill manages to freshen up the genre’s expected reconciliation through a stroke of unexpected thematic symmetry, it is not before some of the plot’s seams begin to show.
Most notable among those is how the two characters don’t seem to have evolved offstage. Cummins ably adds the emotional patina of 25 additional years to Dee, but drama is about relationships, and the script remains awkwardly silent on any husbands or children that might people her past. Hill likewise saddles Corie with a gap that for most women in their 20s is littered with ex-boyfriends.
That said, director Tony Abatemarco gets winning performances from all the actors, while matching Hill’s self-consciously imagistic if sometimes overly literary language. The performances are complemented by designer Cindy Lin’s emblematic set of twisting roots and broken greenhouse windows in a staging suffused with as much nostalgia as knowing camp.
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