"Mine," the very arresting and intensely personal new play by Laura Marks at the Gift Theatre, begins with a young woman having a baby at home and takes place entirely during the next few weeks of that newborn's life. If you look back at that title for a moment and ponder, you'll likely note the double-entendre. Those foggy first weeks of parenting are, of course, a time when one must come to terms with a new sense of dread toward the world, given the existence of an achingly vulnerable human being more important to you — and, it feels, only to you — than your own life. But sleep deprivation plays its tricks, and a new arrival causes havoc in a marriage. Babies usually blow things up.
The nitty-gritty, be it physical or psychological, of parenting an infant is very underexplored in the theater, not least for practical reasons, given the difficulty of casting the antagonist. So while there is much to admire in director Marti Lyons' carefully wrought Gift production, nothing is more admirable than the level of believability of this entire enterprise.
Gift is a very small theater; the viewer is no more than about a dozen feet away from the actors.
Marks' play requires the actors to stage a human birth, breast-feedings, post-birth sex, the stemming of bodily fluids, clothing changes and other such parental and marital intimacies. Yet at no time during the 85-minute running time do you not believe in the veracity of what you are seeing. Since the Gift's acting ensemble is light on actors who are only a few days old, the baby here is played by a doll. In the theater, dolls normally work only when seen briefly from far away. Here, you totally buy the doll's performance, not because this is some amazing animatronic device (it's just an ordinary doll) but because Hillary Clemens and Gabriel Franken, who play the parents, are so convincing in the way they relate to this bundle, even though the viewer is so close as to be almost able to touch its blankets.
Perchance you'll note I did not say "bundle of joy." In this play, she's not. In fact, just a few minutes into the action, the mother, Mari, becomes convinced that her child was somehow switched shortly after her birth, even though the happy event took place at home in full view of several parties to the action. So when Mari tells her mother, Rina (Deborah Ann Smith), her midwife (Alexandra Main) and her husband that this baby just does not smell right, she gets a less than sympathetic reaction. No one likes a mother declaring her child to be a foreign object. Although, aren't they all?
Things get yet stranger from there.
Perhaps "Mine" is a horrifying thriller involving the possibility of alien abductions. Perhaps it's just a portrait of postpartum depression. Maybe it's a study of why some women end up hurting their babies. Maybe it's an elaborate metaphor for how a mother's natural feelings of ambivalence toward the life-sucking being that suddenly has taken over her life have no means of polite expression in a society that idealizes parenting and scorns those who find the whole thing overwhelming. You're never quite sure, which is the idea. And thus you watch the piece with a mounting sense of dread, your empathy for these characters notwithstanding.
Both Clemens and Franken are remarkably credible. Their hipster intimacy is established so quickly and intensely, you find yourself surprisingly invested once it all starts to fall apart. Lyons clearly took pains here to prevent any and all overplaying (a real risk with this piece); both Smith and Main keep things tightly wound. Even Cyd Blakewell, who plays a mysterious stranger who may or may not exist, has a kind of melancholy realism about her performance, which is good, since this is the area where the play steps out of its comfort zone. This honesty in performance only is intensified by the costume design (from Emma Weber), which emphasizes the way the various layers of maternity wear must combine sensuality and function, and by the set design (from Stephen Carmody), which seems dominated by a bedroom, until it suddenly rushes in an entirely different direction, flying off like this weird baby.
Marks has begun to make her mark in New York, where her "Bethany" was very much admired. One hopes we see more of this very promising and strikingly intimate young writer in Chicago. We already know at least one theater that knows how to do her plays.
When: Through Aug. 11
Where: Gift Theatre, 4802 N. Milwaukee Ave.
Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes
Tickets: $25-$30 at 773-283-7071 or thegifttheatre.org