"Living Out"is an example of how the very small events of ordinary life can generate compelling and authentic theatre. It's a funny, touching, remarkably well-crafted look at the child-care question for working women. That it views that question from differing social, cultural, gender and economic positions only enriches an argument that is made immediate and convincing because it is so personal. Playwright Lisa Loomer transforms rhetoric into people with lives that we can care about.
Enacted by a perfectly cast ensemble, and elegantly directed by Sharon Ott, this production avoids all the dangers of being another "issue" play, or another "woman's" play, and instead gives us believable, sympathetic and instantly recognizable individuals viewed with compassion, insight and humor. The restraint and intelligence of the writing generates unexpected depth and emotional resonance from events that could have easily become melodramatic. The characters are each allowed the flaws and contradictions of real people, and the partial, imperfect resolution of conflicts feels genuine, not contrived. When it's funny, which is quite often, that humor always deepens or illuminates our understanding of the characters, rather than simply being an audience pleasing device. Incidents that seem trivial or superfluous when first introduced usually lead to an important recognition later. Above all, it's very easy to care about these women and men, because anyone with children will recognize the choices and compromises that are made in balancing work and family, the uncomfortable evidence of enacted values opposed to expressed desires, and the painful difficulty of making a balanced life.
The play begins when Ana (Stephanie Diaz), a married woman from El Salvador with two sons, one there and one here, interviews for a nanny position, first with Wallace (Liz McCarthy), a fashionable, wealthy woman who "doesn't have to work", then with Linda (Leslie Law), an overwrought, overwhelmed mother of two little boys, and finally with Nancy (Julie Briskman), an entertainment lawyer who desperately wants to return to work shortly after the birth of her first child. Although the play is centered on Ana and Nancy's relationship, we also meet Sandra (Minerva Garcia), who gets the job with Linda, and Zoila (Maria Elena Ramirez), an older, plain-spoken woman who is the perfect opposite of Wallace. The meetings in the park between the three caregivers provide the opportunity for some of the best and funniest cultural and political exchanges, while the encounters between the employer-moms display the anxiety and need of having a relative stranger spending more time with your child than you do. A scene where the nannies share their biases and prejudices about other cultures is trenchant and delightful. It's balanced by a scene of the employer's suspicions and presumptions about the reliability of their helpers, and some foolish "security" methods. That all these women equally feel the pressures and constraints of balancing home, family, marriage and career becomes the nexus of issue and individual, of person and circumstance.
Stephanie Diaz is endearing and admirable as Ana, and she skillfully uses her slightly shy, somewhat unassuming manner to establish the subservient nature of her job, but gradually builds stature until she is, in unexpected ways, the most substantial, self-reliant character in the play. Julie Briskman is simply one of the finest actresses now working in Seattle. She brings the character of Nancy such a broad range of emotion, and such quietly shaded nuance of character that you barely recognize how completely this woman reveals herself. Whether in the smart business suit of her high prestige job, or the rumpled pajamas she wears at home, what we see is a real woman with real stakes in how her life is being led. Her often awkward, eventually outreaching relationship with Ana is complex and elemental, being particular to her, but common to any woman. What I find most satisfying in Julie Briskman's work is the total emotional investment that empowers her impressive technique.
These are all married women, and greatly enriching the play's impact is the balanced and equally insightful portrait of their husbands. In particular, Paul Morgan Stetler plays Nancy's husband as a kind of over-achieving doofus, no fool but no imposing figure of masculinity, either. What is convincing is the depth of his love for his wife, of his desire to have a family and a family life, and his decency. If the women of this play are asked to face the great question of how to be an adequate wife and mother, then the men are given the equal dignity of asking how to be adequate husbands and fathers. And for all, it is in the context of working for and providing (as well as defining) the material needs of their home. Ricardo Antonio Chavira, a handsome, virile actor with great presence, balances his pride and responsibility with moments of self-effacing humor and genuine delight in his wife, Ana. The women in this play are not longsuffering heroines, and the men are not irresponsible idiots, and the result of that is that we really want all of these relationships to work out, and we can believe that these are real marriages.
"Living Out" is a remarkably satisfying play, and it is wonderfully well-performed here. I was especially surprised by the play's structure. The first act is deceptively low-key, with little happening in the way of dramatic incident, other than to build and explore these relationships through commonplace encounters. All the more remarkable, then, when the second act brings us a series of strong, engaging and dramatic conflicts, and we realize that rather than being imposed on the characters, they are only possible because of those seemingly casual relationships. Lisa Loomer writes great one-liners, and they come in at exactly the right time to keep the action buoyant. More than that, though, she recognizes that these are matters so serious that they are always right on the edge of a joke.
The issues of child care, of the employment of "illegal" foreign nationals, and of what it costs us on a personal level to make a living, are as important as they are immediate. The title, "Living Out" refers to those domestics who have their own homes, as opposed to those who are "living in" with the children they care for. In a very real and very engaging way, this play makes us realize the degree to which we can all be "living out" from the central issues of our lives.
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