I provided child care to a wild and winsome group of 4-to-6-year-olds in my neighborhood a couple of times a week earlier in the pandemic. I’m still a bit surprised I lived to tell the tale.
Minding children was a new experience, as exhausting as it was illuminating. Unexpectedly, it was also oddly healing; a child I thought I already knew quite well – one within myself – found an opportunity to play once more, in a space far safer than the place where he’d grown up.
The oddest demographic research seemed the work of the day sometimes. Monsters and waffles, I came to learn, were golden. The crew never got enough of being chased by my hammy, low-grade monstrosities – kid fears, dialed down to manageable, laughable levels – before they inevitably turned to hunt me, quite literally, to ground. Afterward, multi-colored unicorn cakes were de rigueur in celebrations over my rightfully vanquished hulk.
Other days were darker. Bigger feelings overwhelmed such little bodies, regularly outstripping their first attempts at emotional regulation. By the time I met some of them, considerable fury and despair had already been deeply stored in their emotional batteries.
With little notice, those dark reserves could turn the everyday struggles in children’s play – eternally irresolvable conflicts between comic book villains and superheroes – into truly violent games without frontiers, where real rage and grief would shake the bodies of bewildered children before I could try to calm them down.
Number these among the origins of potentially challenged lives. Playwright Dennis Kelly walks us further down such troubled paths in Girls and Boys, a disturbing drama at Burning Coal Theatre. This compelling solo show questions the gendered basis of such violence in child’s play. Then it dares to ask how far we ever truly get away from such vulnerabilities, even decades later as adults.
Under notable young director Ana Radulescu, actor Lilly Nelson convincingly assays the countless daily dings of being a mom. With an appreciation born from a bit more knowledge than I once had, I watch her multitask as two willful (if invisible) children double-team her hapless character. While gleeful infant Danny pitches baby food everywhere except into his mouth, older daughter and budding civil engineer Leanne hauls a bucket of muddy clay upstairs for a public works project in her bedroom. “I don’t care if you’ve got a plastic sheet down,” the unnamed mom declares. Then a minor meltdown has her gently cooing to her son, “I know, Mummy’s horrible. I’m terrible; I’m the worrrrrst mother in the world.”
Before her descent into abject motherhood, Kelly paints Nelson’s character as a sharp-witted woman who nonetheless underpitches and underperforms out of nagging self-doubts. Following a “drinky, druggy, slaggy phase” of her life that comes to its terminus over an unforgettable swath of “suicide-beige carpet,” she travels the world in search of a full-life reset.
Her itinerary – and her life’s trajectory – changes when she meets her unnamed future mate, as he puts two young models on the make in their place – literally, at the back of a line they’re trying to jump for a flight out of Naples. With his support, Nelson’s character brazens her way into a job with a prestigious documentary film producer and her star rises, even with two children in tow. Apparently, government-supported child care is a thing in the UK.
But precipitous reversals follow, as other events begin to parallel Danny’s escalating destructive tendencies. Nelson’s character carefully notes the comparative lack of violence in her immediate world. Looking at her husband, she marvels that he’s never had to defend his home or destroy another human life. “At what other time in history could this be said?” she asks. “In other parts of this planet that is happening right now, but here, in this bubble, it is not, and isn’t that some kind of miracle?”
That pacific state does not last. Those easily triggered will encounter detailed descriptions of the violence ultimately visited upon Danny and Leanne, in a production that reminds us of this harrowing statistic: children are nearly three times more likely to die at the hands of an immediate relative than from a stranger.
Under Radulescu’s discerning direction, Nelson walks a razor’s edge with dignity, in a performance which never descends into pathos. Her mimetic interactions with her absent offspring take on an increasingly haunting tone after the moment she quietly murmurs to us, “I know they’re not here, by the way.”
In its necessary critique of patriarchy, Girls and Boys notes how available violence remains in our psyches, long after it’s first been introduced as an innocent plot expedient in popular entertainment, or an excusable mode of conflict resolution. If those psyches become compromised, Kelly notes, our dark reserves are never far away.
Girls & Boys runs through June 27th at Burning Coal Theatre. For ticket information visit Burning Coal Theatre.
For a complete list of Triangle theater events, visit our Calendar Page.