Sometimes the small, unpretentious shows provide the happiest evenings of theater. Motherhood Out Loud is a compendium of short pieces by several well-known playwrights — including Michele Lowe, Lisa Loomer and Theresa Rebeck, all of whom have had work shown at the Denver Center — compiled by Susan Rose and Joan Stein. It's performed at the Avenue Theater by six actors — five women and a man —and consists of little playlets on many aspects of motherhood: a new mother dealing with her own hovering mother, a woman raising an autistic son, and another whose seven-year-old son loves princess clothes and wants to go to a Purim party dressed as Queen Esther. Then there's the gay man who, with his partner, becomes a mom through the good offices of a lesbian surrogate and the great-grandmother who resents the number of children she was forced to bear because in her time there was no available birth control and she doesn't love all of them. You have to earn love, she tells one: "You have come uninvited into this household." A Muslim mother explains menstruation to her daughter; parents see their rock-musician son off to college and face their empty nest; a woman frets that she'll lose her son to her annoyingly perky daughter-in-law.
The theater world has been thick with entertainments aimed at women lately. Apparently we love being told we're goddesses or just getting drunk and laughing at our own cute womanly peccadilloes. Motherhood Out Loud is part of the Avenue's Women's Appreciation Series, which in the past has included the ghastly Girls Only, so I approached it with trepidation. But even if the show isn't exactly deep, it is great entertainment: funny and thought-provoking, genuinely moving in parts. The plays vary in quality: Some you'd like to see expanded into full-length evenings; some are amusing in the moment but wouldn't stand extended scrutiny. And there are lots of hilariously quotable lines.
The six performers — LuAnn Buckstein, Mehry Eslaminia, Megan Heffernan, Jeff Kosloski, Cindy Laudadio-Hill and Jane Shirley — all have a background in sketch comedy and improvisation. This doesn't always augur well; it can mean lots of mugging. But all of them work beautifully, with real sincerity and heart. When they sat down for a talkback with director Bob Wells after the show I attended, it was clear that each had brought profound memories and feelings — for their children, for their mothers — to their scenes.
Kosloski has great comic timing and can also be low-key and affecting. Shirley's great-grandmother is appropriately tough-minded and repressed, and Shirley is funny as the new mother who hates the world of playgrounds and diaper bags she's fallen into. Buckstein is full of crackling energy; Heffernan is a skilled performer who can be childish or sophisticated at will. According to her resumé, Mehry Eslaminia doesn't have a whole lot of stage experience — and the accent she takes on as the Muslim mother is all over the place, making it hard to understand her words — but she's pure pleasure to watch, brimming with charm, warmth and vitality. Laudadio-Hill is another significant talent, and — with warm support from Kosloski — she delivers the knockout performance of the evening in David Cale's "Elizabeth," as a woman slowly losing her grip on reality. This script is the most original of the evening — unsentimental, unexpected and deeply sad.
It was clear from the talkback that people in the audience had related strongly to very specific moments and scenes. That included the men, some of whom talked about being parents, some about their own mothers. And while it's corny, I couldn't help noticing — and feeling — a kind of kinship among the women. Not a loud, drunken ain't-we-cute or we're-feeling-our-goddess-power-now kind of kinship, but something quieter: a nod in the ladies' room mirror, a half-smile as we passed each other in the corridor. It was because of the play's honesty and heart. And because motherhood is as ordinary as bread and breath. And as elemental.