written and directed by Holly L. Derr
Skidmore College, Fall 2014
sets by Garret Wilson
lighting by Jared Klein
costumes by Patricia Pawliczak

 

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I’m getting ready for my first rehearsal for another incarnation of American Medea tonight, and my stomach is full of butterflies. One of my teachers, Anne Bogart, always says that being nervous is a good sign – it means that you’re invested and that the work is meaningful to you. I agree, and for the most part the butterflies are fun; they are part of the pleasurable anticipation of doing my favorite thing. But there’s always insecurities, too. What if the actors don’t like the play? What if they don’t like me? What if they don’t get it? What if I can’t explain it? What if it doesn’t actually do what I want it to do?

The piece is a collage of Euripides, Seneca, the Bible, the SCUM Manifesto, Southern idiom, and the court transcripts and real media responses to Susan Smith, Andrea Yates, Darlie Routier, and Deborah Green. As a result the plot is really subordinate to spectacle, rhythm, and diction, and the characters, combinations of various real and fictional people, hardly stay on the same thought for more than a few seconds. The idea is to draw out similarities between different versions of a similar story, and to show the cumulative effect of social and cultural forces on our conception of what it means to be a mother.

But in practice, actors have to, on some level, make sense of the moment-to-moment of what they’re doing. If they cannot know why a character changes, they must at least know exactly when. Without a coherent plot or characters that are consistent within themselves, actors must find something else to hang their hats on for the course of the play.

And the audience does, too. The question I always ask myself as an artist when working in this medium is “What connects the dots for the spectator? What are they watching that takes them from the beginning to the end, even when the beginning to the end is not a chronological journey? To what extent do I want them to be confused and to what extent do I want to relieve them of that so that they can focus on something else?” A laser focus on a moment or person can bring clarity, but confusion can also be productive, particularly when the point is that an issue is more confusing than we think.

That’s what I think about this story, and about these real women, and about motherhood: the forces shaping our understanding of these things are so many and so contradictory with one another that the result really is rather confusing. The tendency to make female biology a sacred force that somehow makes motherhood perfectly natural and perfectly fulfilling obscures the complex reality composed of values, socio-economic circumstances, and psychology that is different for every woman.

I guess I will try to rely on that belief to assuage my fears about this evening. If the play doesn’t make sense, if I can’t explain it, if the actors can’t understand it, well, a little confusion can go a long way towards revealing the truth.

This provocative re-imagining of the Medea myth plays out deep in the heart of Texas.  When a media circus descends on the rural cow town of Corinth, TX, to cover a gruesome filicide, a community and the country must confront its own expectations and prejudices about motherhood, identity, and gender roles in a post-modern world. American Medea is an unflinching collage of story and culture, a new American myth based on our own contemporary Medeas.

Just when I thought the stories of mothers who kill their children and the media circus that surrounds them might no longer be so relevant to public discourse, Casey Anthony enters, as if on cue. Turns out not much has changed since 2001, when Andrea Yates drowned her five children in a bathtub, and 1995, when Susan Smith allowed her car to roll into a lake with her two sons in it. Every time this happens, people gasp in horror, “How could it be? How could a woman kill her own children?” And every time we all watch breathlessly as the details of the woman’s painful and particular sufferings are laid bare in front of us. We meet their Jasons (fathers who take no responsibility for raising their children but are honored upon their deaths for surviving the loss), their Creons (older male authority figures who have tried to teach her how to submit), and their Aegeuses (friends who offer escape from real world demands but no help in actually meeting them). The biggest difference with Casey Anthony’s story is that Jason, rather than being a mere asshole who uses his children as pawns, is absent from the scene altogether.

I do not attempt to excuse these women or the murders they commit. But I don’t know how many times we can see this same story told again and again without beginning to pick up on some of the commonalities between them and therefore come to a better understanding of what are very flawed cultural conceptions of how motherhood works. Some women are not fit to be mothers. Getting pregnant and having a child, even attempting to raise one for a few years, does not make a woman automatically right for it or even capable of it. And even when they are right and capable, they really could use a little help.

What we see in our American Medeas again and again is not just mothers who make really really bad choices, but also the failure of fathers, communities, and civic institutions to meet their needs. We need no further proof that many mothers feel they do not have anyone on their side than their initial excitement over Sarah Palin. Even though her support has faded, their immediate affection for her clearly came from their sense that for the first time they might have a voice on the national scene. She advocates no specific governing policy that would help mothers, nor does she spend any of her time actively supporting their causes, and yet many mothers feel she speaks for them in a way that feminist institutions don’t. (The feminist community, by the way, really needs to register this, needs to recognize that her popularity means that we are not fully representing the concerns or serving the needs of a significant number of mothers, and we need to find a way to reach these women.)

American Medea, which follows Euripides’ structure but substitutes the texts and stories of Susan Smith, Andrea Yates, Darlie Routier, and Deborah Green, attempts to show the structural impacts on mothers of patriarchal religion, deadbeat dads, a psychiatric establishment that is fundamentally incapable of addressing women’s issues, and feminist institutions that fail to reach women in need. (That last aspect did not go over well with the boomer women in the audience at my last reading of this play, but I’m keeping it for now.)

I’m not a mom yet, but the moms I know amaze me. They work unbelievably hard at a really difficult and really important job, and they don’t get paid for it. More than half the time they don’t even get recognized for it. I have friends who are getting up to go to Boot Camp at ass o’clock in the morning because they know it’s important to take care of themselves as well as their children. I do not know how they do it. Not all women can (Casey Anthony certainly couldn’t), and I sure wish in those cases mothers had more places to turn for help and more faith that they’d get it if they did.