At the top of Sarah Gubbins' new play "The Kid Thing," ordinary dinner-table chatter between two close, 30-something lesbian couples — about Michael Jackson, his music and his spawn — gives way to a revelation. Nate, played by the spunky Halena Kays, and Margot, played by the elegant Rebekah Ward-Hays at Chicago Dramatists, announce they've decided to have a baby.
In fact, Margot — strangely still sucking down the wine in Joanie Schultz's peppy premiere production on Chelsea Warren's attractive, condo-like set — is already a couple of monthspregnant.
Once the expectant couple has gone home, the remaining pair, Darcy (Kelli Simpkins) and Leigh (Park Krausen), critically deconstruct this news, as many of us would surely do after hearing such a thing from close friends. Clearly, this pregnancy it will be something of a wedge between this once-happy Chicago foursome. Equally clearly, it will be the issue of the evening.
Fair enough. To procreate or not is one of our more crucial decisions on this planet. "The Kid Thing" isn't the only play on this topic; Rebecca Gilman's "The Crowd You're In With" explored some of the same themes. But at this juncture, the trouble with Gubbins' play is that the conversation remains almost entirely in the abstract — and almost entirely about the lives of those who will (or won't) be parents. The kid thing. The kid thing. The dilemma gets hit so often and so hard, it becomes repetitive — even indulgent. Don't these people ever talk about anything else? Nobody seems to have thought much about the actual kid, or kids, who presumably will not be just a thing. Or things.
Anyone who has children will tell you that, once the little monster pops out, or is brought home, all conversations about the suitability of parenthood for one's career, relationship, or hip urban lifestyle are immediately superseded by the imperative of caring for this particular kid. Actually, that Darwin-sanctioned transition usually takes place before the cutting of any cord. It typically happens when the potential dude or dudette starts growing in a belly.
And that's the main problem with "The Kid Thing." The setup here involves an actual pregnancy, a pregnancy that does not feel authentic, either in the script or the production. It feels like a device for an abstract debate. The debate is surely worth having, and Gubbins lays it out in smart and entertaining fashion in a play that laudably probes lesbian life as it is lived in today's Chicago. But there's something missing. Pregnant women and their partners, be they gay or straight, don't just chatter about kids, they chatter about the kid they're having.
This problem is exacerbated by the unfortunate choice Gubbins makes to have this not just be a quartet of lifelong friends, but a pair of couples who have not always been able to stay in their own couple, so to speak. (I won't give details, but you'll see it coming.) For my money, this overloads the play, cheapening everything and everyone, and needlessly overtaxes otherwise truthful actresses, sending us off into pulpy territory.
That's a shame, because the core of the play is rooted in something very powerful. Early on, you admire the way Gubbins explores issues of lesbian parenting by showing that the issues in play are pretty much the same as for straight couples. Progress, you think.
But as the action goes on, you come to see that the issues are not in fact the same, you were a fool for thinking they were, and that Gubbins is going to have the guts to lay all that out. Not only is the matter of finding the right sperm donor (in this case, amusingly played by Steve O'Connell) endlessly complicated, but the character of Darcy (Kelli Simpkins, in the best performance I've ever seen from her) worries that any child she might be talked into having will have to endure the stares of those who think her mom is insufficiently feminine.
As blisteringly played by Simpkins — who shows us an accomplished professional woman who still can be reduced to rubble by age-old prejudices and facile judgments — Darcy and her dilemma are disturbing, powerful and real. She — not the couples nor kids nor things — is the real heart of this play.
When: Through Oct. 16
Where: Chicago Dramatists, 1105 W. Chicago Ave.
Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes
Tickets: $32 at chicagodramatists.org