by Ruth Ross
What does a young woman with no romantic relationship and a strong desire for a child do as she approaches 40 years of age? Undergo artificial insemination with sperm from a donor she’s never met? Adopt? Take in a foster child?
This is the dilemma facing Leslie in Foster Mom by Chris Cragin-Day and winner of Premiere Stages’ 2017 Play Festival. In an emotionally honest performance, Ariel Woodiwiss’ character (left) takes us on a poignant journey that threatens to upend her relationship with her recently widowed mother Sarah and a budding one with techie Josh. Add to this blunt, no-nonsense social work Sophie and you end up with a polished, authentic, engrossing production that rounds out a stellar season for the Kean University theatre.
Once she’s made her decision, Leslie finds that not everyone is on board with her choice. Sophie questions the steadiness of her income (Leslie’s a poet and free-lance copywriter) and her commitment to what will be a difficult road ahead. Her flabbergasted mother is taken aback and then anxious about what will happen if the arrangement goes south and the child is removed from her foster care. And Josh, long kept in the dark about Leslie’s plans, is unnerved and dismayed; it’s clearly something he never anticipated.
It is to Cragin-Day’s credit that there is no pat happy ending to this dilemma. All the characters behave in totally natural ways as the plot moves inexorably along to what is, at best, a hopeful dénouement. The production’s success is the result of steady direction by Kel Haney that never lets the actors descend into melodrama as they grapple with Leslie’s decision, and the natural, convincing performances of a quartet of gifted actors.
Woodiwiss is superab as Leslie. Her facial expressions—predominantly her habit of chewing her cheek as she mulls over her responses and options—convince us that she’s really thinking, not just reciting dialogue written for her. Her ambiguity is palpable, especially when wrestling with whether to tell Josh about her decision. Their penultimate scene is dynamite as Leslie realizes that she loves a child she’s never met—as much as a natural mother does—and fulfills her mother’s prediction.
Much of the play’s humor comes from the mouth of Sarah, played to perfection by Kate Kearney-Patch (left, withKurt Uy). Anxious to bring her daughter and Josh together, she drolly tries to entice him into her scheme. But that light bantering evaporates when she grapples with Leslie’s unexpected news about fostering and lets down her jokey guard to reveal a secret that brings her and her daughter close. By the final scene, she’s more lighthearted, optimistic and supportive of her daughter.
As Josh, Kurt Uy is charming as he attempts to deflect Sarah’s machinations and believably earnest as he, too, attempts to come to grips with the surprise Leslie springs on him. The honesty of his portrayal meshes with the other actors and makes us love him even more than the playwright’s depiction of his character.
Stori Ayers’ Sophie has a much harder time gaining our sympathy. Blunt, officious, her character seems to be placing roadblocks in Leslie’s path during the opening interview. She’s not very encouraging to this young woman about to take a major leap of faith. But Ayers (right, with Woodiwiss) nails the character, even exposing a vulnerability that changes the way we (and Leslie) feel toward her. She may not become immediately warm and fuzzy, but she adds complexity to what could be a two-dimensional character.
The set by Jessica Parks serves many venues, from Leslie’s and Sarah’s apartments to a bar where Josh and Leslie have their first date. Sidney Maresca’s costumes not only delineate character (Leslie’s funky outfits are perfect for a creative type) but they look as though the actors have chosen them. Brant Thomas Murray’s lighting and Emily Auciello’s sound enhance the veracity of the various locations.
Foster Mom tackles an important current problem with candor and integrity, making it personal enough so that we care about what happens to these people and root for them to sort it all out. Chris Cragin-Day’s play is a worthy winner of the 2017 play festival and a great way to cap a successful season.
Foster Mom will be performed at the Zella Fry Theatre in the Vaughn Eames Building on the campus of Kean University, 1000 Morris Avenue, Union, through September 24. For information and tickets, call the box office at 9083737.7469 or visit www.premierestagesatkean.edu online.