Written by Rosie Decter
Other People’s Children begins with distortion. Ilana (Kathleen Stavert), a white lawyer and new mother, stands in front of a bathroom mirror that rearranges her body like something out of a funhouse. Her arm and shoulder are blown up, menacing, her stomach stretched, reaching beyond her. It’s a clever and unnerving image, a statement from director Micheline Chevrier that guides the rest of the show. Other People’s Children is a play about people who are cut off from themselves, trapped by patriarchy, masculinity, poverty –- people who cannot see clearly.
Writer Hannah Moscovitch, a prominent young Canadian playwright, tells this story ably. The dialogue is quick, engaging, and often heart-wrenching. There are only three characters: Ilana, who suffers from postpartum depression and wants to go back to work; her husband Ben (Brett Donahue), a charming salesman who travels often and derides Ilana’s mothering skills; and Sati (Asha Vijayasingham), a Sri Lankan caregiver with four children and an engineering degree, who is brought into Ilana and Ben’s home to care for newborn Eva.
Once Sati arrives, complications ensue. The three characters are drawn into conflicts that are less about the actual act of caring for a baby and more about the way society ensnares mothers. Ilana cannot live up to Ben’s expectations and takes out her insecurities on Sati, who is in turn trapped by a global economy that forces her to leave her children to work in child care. These dynamics play out with heart-wrenching consequences.
The staging and set expertly reflect this despair: Ilana and Ben’s home is bare and white, almost clinical, adorned with a single plastic chandelier. The play takes place entirely in their bathroom and Sati’s bedroom, the actors at first moving stiltedly in and out of the tight spaces, before the action picks up and a gripping fluidity takes hold.
Despite the fact that their characters act as stand-ins for broader social structures, Stavert, Donahue, and Vijayasingham ensure that Ilana, Ben, and Sati feel like actual people. Ben and Ilana could easily come across as simply unlikeable and, in Ben’s case, downright monstrous, but Stavert and Donahue find enough humanity in both to make their story compelling.
Vijayasingham, meanwhile, expertly conveys Sati’s joy and pain, as well
as her conflicted and compromised position in Ben and Ilana’s household. In a
talk back after the play, Chevrier and Vijayasingham discussed the care they
put into making sure Sati comes across as a full character, explaining that the
reason she doesn’t express herself much in the play is because she can never be
completely comfortable around her employers.
Chevrier and Vijayasingham’s efforts pay off, but Sati’s lack of expression does reveal a problem with Moscovitch’s writing. Other People’s Children succeeds in depicting the harmful effects of globalization and the commodification of child care, but it does so largely from the perspective of the wealthy white couple. The play begins and ends with scenes between just Ilana and Ben, before and after Sati’s time in their home. Sati never gets to share how she feels upon her arrival in their house or after her traumatic departure; we never even see her make a phone call home while she’s there. She disappears from their house, and from the play as a whole, as swiftly as she entered. As a result, this feels like Ben and Ilana’s story – Sati remains a foreigner in someone else’s narrative. Which, of course, is part of the point. Sati will always be ‘other’ to Ben and Ilana. But there are ways to write a character who is constrained by her context without losing her point of view.
During the talk back, an audience member asked: where is the hope in this play? Chevrier responded that there isn’t hope, exactly – this is a cautionary tale, a tale about patterns people fall into, the ways we continue to mistreat each other instead of working to take apart the social structures that trap us. And as a cautionary tale, Children works extremely well. But Sati’s absence from the play’s conclusion begs other questions too: who is this cautionary tale for? And who can actually break these patterns?
Other People’s Children runs until November 4 at the Centaur Theatre. $25/20 to reserve in advance, and pay what you decide at the door. Information HERE.