Maybe what you don’t know can actually help you. I sometimes envy children who don’t know their birth parents: They’re free to imagine all kinds of possibilities, even vast inheritances. Not knowing where they came from, they may be freer to work on where they’re going–they can be truly self-made men and women.
But this is easy speculation from someone who knows his parents. For adopted children, like D, the identity-seeking heroine in Sybille Pearson’s Phantasie, imagination can’t make up for a lost legacy: she needs to learn who she is from the person from whom she came. Phantasie looks at the dynamics of that quest and whether the truth about our past can ever set us free.
For 30 years D has been content to love and be loved by her adopted mother, Leah. If she thought about her birth mother, it was to conjure up some fantasy figure, Myrna Loy or a hillbilly or a renegade Rothschild or even Lassie.
But make-believe goes only so far. Now married to Michael Cruz, a loving 35-year-old writer, D will soon have a baby: this new life triggers in D a yearning to close the circle, to meet the woman who gave her up for adoption. D can’t take on a mother’s responsibility until she knows why her birth mother failed at the same task. How, D wonders, can she succeed where this intimate stranger did not?
The first act traces that detectivelike search. After asking Leah for her adoption papers, D joins groups of like-minded adoptees, who give her advice on how to get around the closed files of hospitals and adoption agencies. D pounces on a clue she’s gotten from an otherwise uncooperative clerk, uses a computer to do a name search, makes strategic phone calls, and after getting an address, interviews neighbors to pick up the scent.
In the second act, D meets her real mother: the unglamorous reunion resembles none of her fantasies. Valerie Baum is a lonely history teacher who lives in a crummy house in the same town where D grew up. Astonished at how much her daughter resembles her, Valerie opens up to tell D the banal facts surrounding her adoption: the father was a one-night stand; Valerie, then 17, was forced by her mother to give up the child (Valerie never even dared to look at her); she then spent the rest of her life caring for her mother. A strange kind of atonement.
Her revelations are not enough. As D says, “There’s no answer here.” But surprisingly the disclosures from Valerie bring D closer to Leah, who has patiently endured her own seeming abandonment during D’s search.
After D has been deserted a second time by Valerie (who leaves for Australia), D fantasizes that Leah shows up at Valerie’s house. There D and Leah have the talk they always needed to have: Leah speaks of her life as a Polish Jew in a new country, and D learns how much better she fits into Leah’s life than Valerie’s. She finally belongs. When D sees Leah again, they embrace: it’s as if they’d had that breakthrough conversation.
Rich with emotional detail and wise in its anger, Phantasie makes a well-felt and hopeful argument that love shapes people more than birth. D’s search for her origins is absorbing, and the scene in which Valerie confides to her daughter her regrets about the way she treated her mother teems with unspoken irony.
But Pearson (who wrote the book for the cloying musical Baby) also shortchanges her story in some ways. As the seemingly ungrateful D fanatically pursues her parentage, Leah’s fortitude is unbelievably saintly. Later Valerie surrenders 30 years of privacy and denial all too easily, and then she leaves for Australia (a favorite dumping ground) as if on cue–to clear the way for a reconciliation between D and Leah.
Happily, Judy O’Malley’s staging, a local premiere at Victory Gardens in association with Pelican Productions, is adept at camouflaging the script’s flaws. It focuses, correctly and compassionately, on how D’s search for her roots leads her back to Leah.
Leah’s ultimate importance is one reason why the meeting between natural mother and daughter must be so cold. Motherhood, Valerie shows us, is not a button to be pushed at will; the heart can dry up as well as the breasts. As strong as Peggy Goss makes D’s desire for a happy ending with her natural mother, she’s just as strong at stripping away any such illusion once D actually meets Valerie.
Unfortunately, D’s apostrophes to the audience get cute, and Goss is too chirpy for a woman on mission. In contrast, Janice Saint John plays Valerie with a brusque efficiency that explains all too much about this unfinished mother.
The warmest moments in Phantasie come from its least developed character. Steadily and strongly, Marji Bank underlines the confidence that prevents Leah from losing heart when she might have feared D’s search would supplant her. Her Leah is too wise to worry that biology might wipe out memory.
Carlos Sanz plays the forbearing Michael with a clear sense of the husband’s prevailing passion–to help D have a baby without succumbing to guilt or self-pity over the childhood that might have been. Rob Riley and Terry Joe deftly portray the human obstacles D encounters in her quest.
Mark E. Netherland’s slightly seedy set, cryptically lit by Ellen E. Jones, provides the right backdrop for Phantasie’s emotional detective story. Daryl A. Stone’s costumes neatly mark off reality from fantasy.