Sophocles: Seven Sicknesses
Sophocles: Seven Sicknesses Credit: Matthew Gregory Hollis

For heterosexuals, having babies can be—very often is—a no-brainer. That’s one huge cause of the suffering in the world, but it’s also a blessing for the race. How many of us would have children if we had to think too hard about it? The costs. The anxiety and inconvenience. The messes. Would we consider it a good deal to give up a minimum two decades of our lives raising people who are pretty much guaranteed to hate us for half that time and then to move out just when they start getting interesting and potentially productive? I thank God for the hormone-driven ignorance that led me to have children because, as it turns out, I love them. Still, there’s no way it made sense.

Which is why I’m fascinated by gay couples who become parents even though they actually do have to think strategically about it, and then go to considerable trouble to achieve it. Is there a cost-benefit argument I don’t see? Is the urge so deep-seated that it trumps all other considerations? Are they socialized to want it because everybody else does?

Who knows? Sarah Gubbins‘s exceedingly sharp new play, The Kid Thing, isn’t designed to supply a single answer. Her characters—four of whom are friends involved in committed lesbian relationships—are fairly thoughtful people, but they haven’t delved deep into the issue and come out with a solution to the baby question. Like any of us, they see having kids in idiosyncratic, conventionally confused terms. Untethered, wealthy Margot apparently wants one for ballast. Depending on when you catch her, Margot’s slacker partner, Nate, seems to hope that parenthood will either help her grow up or further extend her childhood. Social worker Leigh sees offspring as the next phase in a well-regulated life with her partner, Darcy. Meanwhile, Jacob, the sperm donor who’s already delivered for Margot and is being interviewed by Leigh, feels he’s got a natural resource he’d be selfish not to share.

What’s brilliant about The Kid Thing isn’t that it can or even tries to answer the question, Why have kids? But that it turns that question around and asks, Why not? For better or for worse, making babies is as much a part of life as, well, life itself. So then, what would motivate a person to undermine her best chance at participating in life—especially when her every other happiness depends on it?

And Darcy undermines with a vengeance, even as she tries desperately to maintain the shaky status quo she’s established with Leigh. She’s sneaky, cranky, bullying, and stunningly manipulative about it—sometimes by turns and sometimes all at once. At certain points you think you’ve found out why, but you’re wrong. The truth comes late and unpredictably, and it provides a painful revelation about the psychic cost of difference.

Until that truth arrives, there’s Gubbins’s smart, funny dialogue to keep us engrossed, as well as the marvelous ensemble Joanie Schultz has put together for this Chicago Dramatists/About Face Theatre coproduction. Halena Kays is a sawed-off, endearing kid as Nate. Long and lean, Kelli Simpkins would be a cartoon of ranginess if she didn’t know how to give Darcy heft—sometimes amusingly, as when she gets back at Park Krausen’s controlling but very sexy Leigh by putting her whiskey glass directly on the coffee table . . . without a coaster.

CLEARLY THE HYPOCRITES’ Sean Graney wants his audiences uncomfortable. I started to suspect it one day in 2009, when I had to stand around dodging actors during his environmental production of Frankenstein. Now it’s confirmed. His Sophocles: Seven Sicknesses is a four-hour endurance test.

Not that I wasn’t up to the challenge. I’m a pro, after all. I can tolerate long periods on ungainly benches. What made the experience hard to take was the lack of any sense that the show’s unusually long running time was justified.

Graney had an interesting insight: that each of Sophocles’s seven surviving plays is about sickness, both physical and spiritual. He decided to present all seven in truncated form, one after another, on a set representing an emergency room. The blinded, bloody-faced Oedipus shows up there. Herakles’s aide, Philoktetes, loses a foot there. Herakles himself shows up with a very bad burn.

Thing is, the production doesn’t really explore this notion so much as illustrate it over and over—seven times, in fact.

Graney is a resourceful director with a good company of actors. Jeff Trainor’s Oedipus, Zeke Sulkes’s Creon, and Tien Doman’s Clytemnestra are especially strong; Lindsey Gavel is a hoot as the blind seer that turns up everywhere. There’s a lot of cunning humor to leaven the show. But even the running gags grow tediously repetitive after a while, never deepening into something more.