It’s as if playwright Christopher Durang knew what American parenting was coming to when he was writing in 1983.
Durang’s biting comedy Baby With the Bathwater premiered that year at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Mass. But from where I sat during a rehearsal Thursday of Denton Community Theatre’s upcoming staging, Durang’s bruising farce (or is it satire?) looked and felt prophetic.
Today, expectant parents are a mouse click away from spending $120 on a tiny French food processor made over to be a baby food maker. (Yes, this expensive hunk of plastic can also warm packaged and frozen baby food and steam whole food before it turns into an expensive blender, but isn’t that what your stove and microwave are for?) For $150, you can get a bigger, better baby food maker.
Baby With the Bathwater precedes the crush of ultra-ethical parenting, but Durang saw it coming. He met this phenomenon of scorekeeper parenthood with blunt-force humor.
The play follows a couple who are stunned and frozen by the arrival of their wee one. John and Helen, played by Jason Lee and Heather Kenslow, are a tangle of passive agression, neuroses and chronic selfishness. The baby isn’t expected, and maybe not even wanted, but the couple dives into parenthood with results that make an audience rubberneck, sure that disaster is approaching like one of those movie monsters — slowly, deliberately and armed to the teeth.
Director Polly Maynard, herself a mom of twins, directs the show. It’s something of a herculean task, because this sweet little nuclear family could be easy to hate. John is a drunk, Helen is nuts, and the very institutions that should keep their bundle of joy safe are corrupt.
“I had to get them them [Lee and Kenslow] to think about their childhoods — the characters’ childhoods,” Maynard said. “We had to ask what made them the way they are, and what happened to make them like this. It’s a fine line.”
With “mommy bloggers” publishing their failures and successes alongside gorgeous photographs, and Pinterest promoting affluent families with the time and means to build dreamy DIY playhouses, tree houses and romper rooms, present-day parents have got to feel they’ve got a lot to live up to. And with social media booming among the married-with-children set, parents must feel as if they’re rearing children at center stage.
Full disclosure: I don’t have children. But the expectations of parents and children are hardly visible to parents alone. Parenthood today is a cutthroat business.
That pricey baby food maker is a symbol of it all.
Sometimes, just a quick cruise through your Facebook newsfeed reveals how many parents insist that their children are on strict diets of home-cooked meals — using organic food. Locally grown, if you’re especially virtuous.
And McDonald’s? The chain is the devil incarnate, purveyor of obesity, diabetes and blind brand loyalty. And what of those rows of sparkling Gerber jars beckoning from the supermarket aisles? What if mom and dad are working full-time hours with routine turns of gratis overtime? Well, then you owe it to your child to work a third shift in a backyard garden — or over a contraption that will steam and chop away your guilt.
Surely some of the worries of parenthood are productive. It’s normal and natural to want to rear healthful, curious children. John and Helen are the opposite, avoiding important decisions and denying that they are setting their child up for a very, very hard life.
Durang’s Baby also mocks the way parents of the 1970s and 1980s used their children as intruments of torture. Even today, the idea of children used as agents of war against their divorced parents is a familiar trope on television shows and films set in privileged, suburban settings.
Last year, The New York Times published a lifestyle piece (“How Divorce Lost its Groove”) about the steady decline of divorce rates among college-educated Americans since its 1980 peak. The parents raising babies, toddlers and young children today look at marriage and family as an enterprise for smart, resourceful peers.
And if you pay attention to social media, parents are raising children under serious scrutiny. A popular Boston minister recently recounted a tricky moment with a young boy who is performing in a play with her. She queried her online friends about whether she should have “gently corrected him.”
As the comments grew longer, one thing was certain: Children’s behavior is the reflection of the quality of their parenting, and correcting a child is fraught with philosophical and emotional values. One perceived failure counts against mom and dad, and severely.
Maynard said she can sympathize a little with Helen and John.
“You can get really tired,” she said, “and some of the things [Helen and John] say, you do fantasize about if you’re honest.”
Durang spares no one in this farce about family failings, and yet he has a soft spot for home and hearth. He also believes in second chances, and possibilities.
The world is full of risk, and people will foul up. Ticking off the boxes in a perfect parenting workbook won’t shield children from pain, danger or loss. Things happen. All the organic food in the world won’t save them from the sad parts of life.
Sometimes, as Durang shows us, parents have to laugh. Laughter is the best antidote to insanity.
LUCINDA BREEDING can be reached at 940-566-6877. Her e-mail address is email@example.com.
BABY WITH THE BATHWATER
What: Denton Community Theatre presents the comedy by Christopher Durang.
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 2 p.m. Aug. 5
Where: PointBank Black Box Performing Arts Center, 318 E. Hickory St.
Details: Tickets cost $10. For reservations, call 940-382-1915. Rated R for language and mature content.
On the Web: www.dentoncommunitytheatre.com