Plunging their audience into the brutally truthful world of working mothers in today’s culture, the Claire Trevor School of the Arts’ Drama Department did justice to the theme of their 2019-2020 season, “Women & Co.” Their moving production of Lisa Loomer’s poignant play “Living Out,” directed by Jane Page, opened on Saturday, March 7 at the Robert Cohen Theatre.
Rich with gut-wrenching twists, comedic moments and female empowerment, the play centers around two women from immensely contrasting backgrounds balancing work and parenthood in Los Angeles, California. Eloquently exploring themes of motherhood, it examines the cost of being there for one’s child financially rather than emotionally, and how that price differs based on socio-economic status.
Ana Hernandez (Ariella Kvashny) is an undocumented Salvadoran woman working in the Westside as a nanny for Nancy Robin (Crystal Kim), an upper-middle class attorney going back to work after maternity leave. These mothers have two monumental commonalities: the choice to leave their children in someone else’s care in order to provide for them, and the heartache they experience over it. However, the drastically different circumstances of Ana’s life mean her choice will have far more dire consequences.
Kvashny’s performance as Ana — the loving, diligent and hardened mother of two — is absolutely exceptional. A complex character, Ana carries the burden and guilt of distancing herself not only from her young son at home but also from her son still in El Salvador, whom she’s desperately trying to bring over to the U.S. Kvashny fills the well-rounded role with brilliant nuance, drawing on her incredible skill for evoking emotion.
Meanwhile, Kim does great justice to the role of Nancy, a practical and career-driven woman who also seems plagued with guilt about every aspect of her life. Her raw passion sparks empathy in fights with her neurotic and conflicted husband Richard (Hunter Ringsmith). However, she also displays a knack for comedic timing in her awkward interactions with the other wealthy mothers in her neighborhood, Wallace (Veronica Renner) and Linda (Lilian Wouters).
The difficult, but beautiful, relationship between Ana and Nancy is developed with incredible nuance. Their initial distance and hesitation to speak honestly with each other slowly melts away to a comfortable and almost completely trusting companionship. This is all articulated skillfully by Kvashny and Kim’s physicality and vocal confidence in their interactions, which evolved naturally like a realistic friendship formed over a period of months.
Since the play was staged in a black box theater space with the audience on three sides of the action in a makeshift thrust-style stage, director Jane Page was careful to specify blocking that allows each section of the audience to have full view of at least one character at a time. However, this practicality never seems to force any obviously unnatural movement – an impressive feat.
Directly above the acting area are large freeway signs as well as the skyline of a cityscape, which all indicate to the audience the moment they step into the theater that they’re now in Los Angeles. This creative idea is credited to scenic designer Gretchen Ugalde, as is the minimalist and flexible scenic pieces which allow for a seamless and fluid show. The establishment of a different location is executed through the changing and rearranging of fairly large set pieces, including a kitchen counter, table, couch, chair, park benches and even a bed. These shifts are consistently accomplished by the scenic crew with precision, silence and speed. Nancy and Richard’s kitchen and living room setup can be used as Ana and Bobby’s house the very next moment. The space can then even be used for both households simultaneously in a split-stage moment. Not only does this mean uninterrupted transitions between heavy scenes, but it also creatively highlights the parallels between the two families.
With the audience seated only a few feet away from the actors, the agonizing moments of tragedy, which occur more frequently as the plot thickens, are experienced on a heartbreakingly intimate level. As more details of Ana’s life are revealed, especially about her pained and constantly worsening relationship with her son in El Salvador, the anguish behind her eyes and the trembling in her voice while she speaks to him on the phone truly wrench the audience into her misery.
Though “Living Out” is set in the late 1990s, admidst a period of increased immigration to the U.S. due to the end of the Salvadoran Civil War, it couldn’t have come at a more relevant time. Not only does it offer insight into the vast array of hardships faced by immigrants in the U.S., it does so through the lens of working mothers, who are already dealing with constant societal pressure. It seems that whether a mother chooses to work or stay home with her children, she’ll have to face judgement for it eventually — if not by men, then by other women or even by her own conscience.
UCI Drama’s “Living Out” is chock-full of skillful, emotionally evocative acting that inspires empathy for both these women. The directorial and design choices effectively emphasize the ironic parallels between them, making the audience hyper-aware of the differences in their circumstances but the similarities in their sentiment towards choosing to be working mothers. Setting out to raise the question of what it means to be a working mother across two extremes of the American socio-economic class structure, this morally complicated, somehow villainless play succeeds in opening the eyes and tugging at the heartstrings of the audience.
Rachel Golkin is a Contributing Writer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.