Lord of the Underworld’s Home for Unwed Mothers
Reviewed by Neal Weaver
Through May 14
This is not the first play to deal with the Catholic Church’s former barbarous and hypocritical treatment of unwed mothers, but playwright Louisa Hill gives the subject urgent and harrowing reality.
Teenager Dee (Corryn Cummins) is a nice Catholic girl, and the daughter of parents for whom it’s vital to keep up appearances. She’s had a faithful boyfriend since grade school, and she assumes she’ll marry him and live happily ever after. So, when the two feel the stirrings of sexual attraction, it’s easy for them to give in and rationalize their behavior with the notion that, since they plan to marry anyway, where’s the harm? Fortunately for them, their love-making produces no serious consequences. Then an attractive bad-boy appears on the scene, and he makes the good boy seem pallid and uninteresting. And soon the newly constituted couple are making love in the back seat of his car, resulting in an unforeseen and unwanted pregnancy.
Dee wants to have the baby — but the bad-boy turns hostile. And the girl’s parents are mainly interested in avoiding scandal: their plan is to secretly send Dee away to a home for unwed mothers, then pass the baby along to foster parents. They assure Dee that this is the ideal solution; once the baby is born, they can all pretend it never happened, and she can go back to high school for her senior year. Dee is forced to tearfully acquiesce to their plans.
Once she’s in the home, and gives birth to her daughter, Dee becomes more desperate than ever to keep her child. And once she has seen it, and been allowed to briefly hold it, the thought of giving up the little girl becomes agony. But she is young, alone and helpless, and surrounded by people with a vested interest in taking the child: the home is little more than a baby farm, with the young women callously used like breeding stock. The powers-that-be pull out all the tried and true sophistries, telling her it’s sheer selfishness to try to hold onto the child, who might be placed in a happy family and live a blissful life. When the “moral” arguments fail, they turn to financial ones: How can she pay for the care she has received in the home, without the financial support of the potential foster-parents? Defeated and beaten down, she’s forced to accept the fact that her baby is being wrenched away from her, and comforted only by the thought that her daughter will have a happy life.
The child, Corrie (Michaela Slezak), will not be so lucky. She is bounced from one foster home to another, and becomes angrier and more bitter every day, till her anger seems almost a force of nature. She’s told that her mother was a whore who abandoned her, and her every decent impulse is thwarted. She develops a streak of self-hatred and violence which is expressed in a passion for death metal music. When the girl is in her twenties, Dee finally finds a way to reach out to her daughter — but her attempts at reconciliation meet with strong resistance.
Hill’s play has a raw elemental power that delivers an emotional wallop, and both Dee and Corie emerge as larger than life figures, with surprising stature and a startlingly gritty reality. Director Tony Abatemarco has cast the piece beautifully, and gives it a passionate and loyal production. Both Cummins and Slezak deliver vivid, credible, gut-wrenching performances while all the other roles are played by a chorus of two. In a wonderful display of versatility, Adrian Gonzalez portrays all the fathers, boyfriends and lovers, including a shaggy metal-head musician, with Amy Harmon as the many mothers, nurses, counselors and nuns.
Cellist Marilyn Winkle provides the effective incidental music, and Cindy Lin designed the handsome, abstract impressionistic set.
Skylight Theatre, 1816-1/2 North Vermont Avenue, Los Angeles. Fri.-Sat., 8:30 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m. (213) 761-7061 or http://SkylightTix.com. Running time: two hours with one 15-minute intermission.