When I was still joylessly participating in the gruelling gay dating circuit (oh so many years ago during the Paleolithic age), one of the criteria in my mental checklist for moving beyond a second date with a particular guy was whether having kids was one of his non-negotiables. If it was, then it was ”hasta la vista, baby” time after the second date, regardless of how much he resembled Mr. Right for me. Although I love my nephews and niece, I don’t particularly consider myself paternal – I highly value my independence and my non-tethered lifestyle, and the fact that, unlike my straight friends, there really isn’t any pressure for me to respond to socio-cultural expectations and a metaphorical biological timeclock to settle down and create a nuclear family. So Sarah Gubbins’ The Kid Thing, a world premiere co-production between About Face Theatre and Chicago Dramatists, is particularly resonant and unsettling for me, and, I could imagine, for the gay people of my generation. Although I think the script requires some more polish and a little bit more focus, The Kid Thing is quite incisive and thought-provoking, with beautifully-constructed performances, and a punch that lingers with you way after the show has finished.
Nate and Margot reveal to their close friends Darcy and Leigh over dinner one night that they are planning to have a baby via donor sperm with Margot as the biological mother. The donor, it turns out, is Nate and Leigh’s college buddy Jacob, who has remained single and has travelled the world as a Fulbright scholar and a peace-broker. This piece of news creates a single-minded focus in Leigh to have a baby of her own with Jacob as the donor too, which of course creates all sorts of complications with Darcy, who doesn’t share the passion to bring a child into the world that Leigh has. Gubbins intricately, provocatively frames the dilemmas of these couples: the role and responsibility of the donor in parenting, the emotional and intellectual complexities of having a shared donor between the two couples, the emotional and psychic impact of child-rearing on the partner who isn’t the biological mother, the logistics of who gets to be called “Mama” and “Mommy”- issues that heterosexual couples do not ever have to think about, much less resolve. Gubbins adds an additional layer to the discourse which I feel requires a play of its own: both couples have a more masculine partner (Darcy and Nate) and a more feminine partner (Leigh and Margot, both of whom are to be the biological mothers), and the play begins to, but doesn’t really fully explore, the way the “butch lesbian” persona is received by the 21st century world we live in. I think this is an important issue that calls for a lot more discussion of, maybe in a longer play, especially since it forms the crux of one of the crucial monologues in the piece. I also feel that the role of Jacob (appealingly played by Steve O’Connell) is a little hazy, and serves more as a conflict provider rather than a fully-fleshed out and integral character in the production, unlike that of Mark Ruffalo’s similar donor role in the film The Kids Are All Right, which tackles some of the same concerns but from different angles. But it is a really exceptional script, and I’d take this play over the gazillion re-hashes of dead white men plays on other Chicago stages.
The ensemble is formidable: Halena Kays’ easygoing Nate who is sincerely excited to be a parent is warm, funny, poignant; Park Krausen’s somewhat dippy Leigh who gains laser-sharp focus when it comes to becoming a mother is meticulously-shaded; and, especially, Rebekah Ward-Hays’ beautiful, sharp, aloof Margot is riveting to watch – she makes you skeptical as to whether Margot is really into this motherhood thing, and if she isn’t, what’s her agenda (to keep her relationship with Nate on solid ground, despite the fact that she seems to be in control of it? I don’t know, and I would have loved to see more stage time for the character and Hays). I’ve seen Kelly Simpkins in several productions over the past few years and think she’s a terrific actress but I initially thought her Darcy was unsympathetic and grating. Having thought about the play over the past week since I saw it, though, I think the cleverness and compassion of Simpkins performance and Gubbins writing is that Darcy really is the mirror to the conscience of the gays in the audience like me, who have always thought that having kids in a same-sex relationship is a no-no – Darcy reflects our defiance, our deep-seated ambivalence, our risk-aversion, our inadvertent cruelty, our, shall I say it?, loneliness. It’s a terrific role and a sharply-thought out performance.
Joannie Schultz’s direction is solid and unfussy, letting the conflict and the dialogue draw the audiences in. I love Chelsea Warren’s scenic design which realistically captures the affluent, unemcumbered lifestyle of that segment of upwardly-mobile Chicago gays. But, ultimately, The Kid Thing is notable for bringing forward a very contemporary issue that has no easy answers, and that’s what I consider a truly meaningful night at the theater.
The Kid Thing is at Chicago Dramatists, 1105 W. Chicago Avenue, until October 16.