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Labor Costs

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My significant other and I were driving out to Metairie to attend a class in natural childbirth. We'd had a tiff. We were furious at each other. Silence. The chill in the car was arctic.

We got there. The lady running the class told the mothers-to-be to lie down on their backs. We, the fathers-to-be, were to kneel beside them and purr little endearments and encouragements. We were even given some suggestions. "You are doing great, darling." "I love you so much, my sugar." That sort of thing. And we were supposed to hold them by the hand. Massage them gently, while we purr our endearments.

"Don't touch me," my significant other hissed, under her breath.

"The lady's coming this way," I hissed back -- then, added (loudly) with a broad, fake smile, as I grabbed her hands: "You're doing great, darling, sugar, sweet pet!"

Childbirth, of course, is a universal human experience. But, it's hard to imagine couples from Uzbekistan or Nepal going through quite the same ridiculous dilemma as my significant other and I. The universal, it seems, always comes in some particular, vernacular form.

Callie's Tally, currently receiving a rousing world premiere production at Southern Rep, takes an up-to-date, post-modern, American glance at the trials and tribulations of having a baby. The play is subtitled "or what my daughter owes me" and one of the gags of this romp is a running tally in dollars and cents of the price of procreation. I guess dollars and cents are very much a part of our vernacular. In fact, not only was playwright Betsy Howie in attendance on opening night, but her real life daughter (whose name is Callie) was there as well. How particular can you get?

Callie's Tally began life as a book. Then, Howie transformed it into a one-woman show. But director Loy Arcenas (who also designed the show) has emphasized the universality of the theme by splitting the central character into three personas. Three actresses in jeans take turns as "the woman." All three are white. I mention this because the fourth actress who plays the woman's mother is black. This nontraditional casting is not done to introduce racial or cultural complications in the specific story being told, but to further emphasize the universality.

In any case, Lara Grice, Maria Mason and Morrey McElroy are delightful and riveting as the exasperated, resourceful young bearer of new life, while Carol Sutton works her usual magic in the more restrained role of the mom's mom, and briefly as the mom's agent.

The ironic subtitle of the play sets a tone of mordant mirth. We often laugh the laughter of recognition while the woman worries about whether she is physically able to have a child or frets about yet another baby shower. But we are sometimes caught off guard by flashes of intensity, like the sequence performed by Morrey McElroy about the act of giving birth.

But while there are occasional gripping moments of drama, most of the show rolls along merrily enough through the absurdities of baby land -- for instance, how and where a working mom can operate a breast pump with a modicum of dignity. A horribly noisy breast pump, at that! A breast pump whose oomphing can be heard by coworkers, no matter what precautions are taken.

Breast-feeding, like so much else in baby land, is not quite the lyrical pastel-colored Elysium we would like to think. Some times, as it turns out, babykins doesn't just sweetly suckle, sometimes babykins bites! Thus maternity grinds on, until mommy is ready to break out and flee like a convict from Angola. And yet, she doesn't break out. She perseveres. Beneath the surface squalls, there is deeper, calmer water. The universal trumps the particular. People keep having babies.

Callie's Tally is a free form entertainment -- more than a skit, less than a play. Southern Rep Artistic Director Ryan Rillette reports that he used the script to solicit help from theaters around the country. In that sense, this amusing meditation on parenthood may have pulled the adventurous little theater from the brink of disaster. Well, hurrah! It's good to have Southern Rep back with us, and doing an original play, once again, to boot.

Speaking of original plays, it's worth pointing out that the rest of Southern Rep's season offers a panoply of world premieres, including two by noteworthy local writers: Yuletide by Jim Fitzmorris in November and Rising Water by John Biguenet in March.

In  Callie's Tally , a new mom adds up the costs - and benefits of having a child.
  • In Callie's Tally , a new mom adds up the costs and benefits of having a child.

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