By Erik Nikander
Cry It Out is a well-done dramedy that suggests that we try harder to let life’s sweet moments linger.
Cry It Out by Molly Smith Metzler. Directed by Amanda Charlton. Staged by Merrimack Repertory Theatre at 50 East Merrimack Street, Lowell, MA, through May 19.
Merrimack Repertory Theatre’s production of Molly Smith Metzler’s Cry It Out boasts a number of remarkable qualities. Its central characters — three new mothers (and one father) doing their best to weather the storms of parenthood — are sympathetically and richly defined. The script makes effective use of humor and also includes moments of genuine gravitas. In addition, each element of MRT’s technical presentation is well done. Beyond these merits, the most memorable thing about this script may be its quiet confidence in the commonplace. This is not a flashy show, and it’s not bothered by that fact — it prefers to tap into something honest and true.
Director Amanda Charlton’s approach to the material is refreshing. Each scene proceeds at a relaxed pace, and that deepens our connection to the characters. The plot centers on two Long Island neighbors, Jessie (Erin Felgar) and Lina (Natasha Warner). Both are new mothers at home on maternity leave; as their babies nap they meet in Jessie’s backyard, chat over coffee, and become fast friends. Their neighbor Mitchell (Mark David Watson) drops by and asks the women if they can help his wife, Adrienne, form neighborhood connections with other moms. Their attempts to reach out don’t go as planned, and the two soon find themselves struggling to hang onto the happiness they’ve found together.
Cry It Out is emotionally direct; viewers expecting knotty melodrama or heightened farce will be disappointed. The play takes a naturalistic approach, letting conversations play out much as they would in real life — a strategy that, when done well, can be gripping. The script revels in life’s subtle-yet-profound moments, particularly the quiet blossoming of a friendship. Meltzer’s characters face the problems most of us encounter: class disparities, financial pressures, and the challenging of established gender roles. Cry It Out depicts these everyday struggles with the kind of nuance and detail that’s necessary to make them wholly engaging and dramatically convincing.
MRT’s cast and crew have a fine text to work with, and they make the most of the opportunity. Felgar and Warner are excellent as Jessie and Lina; it’s great fun to watch the two moms get to know each other. Warner brings a brash exuberance to Lina that perfectly expresses her working-class background as well as the verve that drives her personality. Jessie, on the other hand, is more of a Whole-Foods-and-NPR suburbanite, but Felgar plays her with such warmth and essential kindness that the portrait never feels condescending — or, at least, it never feels as if Jessie means to be patronizing. These are women from different cultural worlds; if not for their shared experience of motherhood they might never have become friends. The actors give us a sense of how valuable this opportunity is — and the importance of making the most of human connections.
Mitchell and Adrienne, the wealthy couple from down the road, don’t have quite as much time on stage as Lina and Jessie. But that doesn’t hamper the supporting cast. Polly Lee is the play’s comic highlight, stretching out silences to riotous effect and expressing volumes with a frozen expression of horror. She infuses Adrienne with a prickly reluctance to open herself up emotionally that is first hilarious and then, after a revelatory scene, genuinely moving. Mitchell is the only character in the piece who feels a tad underwritten, but Watson turns this ambiguity to his advantage. The fact that he wedges himself into Jesse and Lina’s friendship is designed to frustrate, but Watson gives the man a fumbling, well-meaning awkwardness that makes his helpless nature a little endearing – even heartbreaking.
Charlton and her cast go for naturalism throughout Cry It Out, and their efforts are matched by MRT’s technical artists. Tim Mackabee’s scenic design — the yard behind Jessie’s duplex — is filled with details that ground us in the moment. From the colorful little slide that serves as an impromptu bench during Lina and Jesse’s coffee sessions to the realistic lawn — complete with neglected patches of brown grass — it feels as if we could step onstage and find ourselves in Long Island. The costumes crafted by Leon Dobkowski feel both natural and evocative of character; he dresses Jessie in plenty of flowing layers and Adrienne with a top covered in stark stripes. Whether accenting bright, casual mornings or emotionally-charged meetings late at night, Ann G. Wrightson’s lighting is true to life yet sets the theatrical mood.
Cry It Out may not be a visual spectacle, but this affecting dramedy makes for a terrific MRT season finale. It doesn’t need showiness to serve as a potent reminder of the fragility of life, suggesting that, in response, we let life’s sweet moments linger. Jessie eventually realizes that the experiences that make us content — be they afternoon chats with a friend, hours spent working at your chosen craft, or an all-too-brief maternity leave — are too precious to squander.
Erik Nikander is a critic, playwright, and filmmaker based in the New England area. His film criticism can be read on Medium and his video reviews on a variety of topics can be viewed on Youtube at EWN Reviews.