Two lesbian couples contemplate parenthood in Sarah Gubbins’ “The Kid Thing,” a play that smartly mixes debate and drama, argument and psychological revelation. One moment, the friends are talking rationally about the benefits of being transparent to a child about a sperm donor dad, and the next they are barely hanging on to civility as a character’s carefully subdued fears and desires rush to the surface.
The opening scene catalyzes the drama in a manner not unlike Donald Margulies “Dinner With Friends,” as, at the end of a meal, lesbian couple Nate (Halena Kays) and Margot (Rebekah Ward-Hays) reveal to their good friends Leigh (Park Krausen) and Darcy (Kelli Simpkins) the fact that Margot is pregnant. Leigh, best pals with Nate for many years, is thrilled; Darcy is just plain shocked, her quickly established verbosity, often tinged with judgmental condescension, turned instantly to speechlessness.
For the impulsive Leigh, the event makes her immediately want to pursue having a child; for the butch, conservative Darcy, the discovery forces her to deal with layers of issues, from her concerns of both financial and emotional readiness to unspoken doubts about her relationship to, ultimately, more deep-seated psychological questions about her own self-worth.
While maintaining a solid grip on the play’s fundamental realism, Gubbins does allow the work to bounce around a bit in tone. The first act moves along solidly but traditionally, with revelations of an affair among the foursome and with Leigh moving forward with planning for a child, even determining that she should share the same sperm donor as Nate and Margot.
The second act begins with more comic sequences, introducing the willing sperm donor Jacob (an excellent Steve O’Connell), who must navigate very different agendas from Leigh and Darcy. In these very strong segments the pace is brisker, the scenes leavened with overt plotting and dramatic irony.
The climactic sequence brings all the characters together for what promises to be the outing of some secrets, but ends up going further, turning into a scene of emotional cruelty that, since “August: Osage County,” seems to have become a specialty of Chicago playwrights.
Director Joanie Schultz manages the tonal shifts effectively, and deserves extra praise for staging transitions that elegantly propel both story and character.
There are a couple of potentially problematic elements in “The Kid Thing.” First, Gubbins surprisingly portrays a blatant butch/femme split in both couples, but, while Nate and Darcy’s masculinity becomes a subject, the stereotypical quality of the relationships goes undiscussed in a play that discusses a lot.
More concerning from a craft perspective, the character Darcy perhaps dominates the play too much — she is without question the most complex of the women, and most everything is driven by her reaction to events. Kelly Simpkins (one of the original performers in “The Laramie Project”) puts forth a raw, intense performance of a character whose motivations seem to peel away as the play goes forward, but who remains unlikable pretty much from start to finish.
The emotional impact of her actions may be limited by the lack of the same dimensionality in other characters, but Darcy’s psychological complexes are provocative enough, her motivations ambiguous enough, and Simpkins’ performance strong enough, to make “The Kid Thing” a work of significant depth.