A Pirate’s Lullaby

Goodman Theatre Studio

What does a woman want? If those jaded men had asked me, I would have said “a smart play smartly done about the risky business of women’s lives.” Something like Susan V. Booth’s production of A Pirate’s Lullaby at the Goodman Studio.

Jessica Litwak’s story is an intriguing mix of the surreal and the naturalistic. Her wit is often surprising, as she mixes literary and scientific allusions with blunt turns of phrase specific to each character. Opposites mix easily in this play: women live as men, imagination is real, security is somehow dangerous, symbolism materializes in everyday life, and the difficult theatrical leap of faith is crafted with intelligence and power.

Daisy Armstrong, a shy, pregnant history professor, travels to North Manitou Island in Lake Michigan with her mother Natalie, an obsessively conformist, highly intelligent alcoholic. The government is purchasing their land to create a national park, so this will be their last visit to the place that’s been a sanctuary for three generations. With the help of the spirits of Anne Bonney and Mary Reade, two British pirates who are the subject of her latest research, Daisy comes into her own as a mother, a woman, and a proud eccentric.

It’s a credit to Litwak, Booth, and their excellent cast that Daisy’s journey takes the form of an ambiguous passage into an uncertain sanctuary. Booth’s direction emphasizes the camaraderie and antagonism between various characters, allowing Litwak’s bitter wit and intellectual playfulness to ride on emotional tides that give the production depth. The main characters are complicated and sometimes unnervingly vulnerable, living as they do on the margins of sanity and comfort, inventing their lives and facing conflict with a battle cry: “The fun begins!”

The parallel story of the pirates is an invigorating, historically informed force in the play. Lusia Strus’s Mary Reade is a husky-voiced, limber, androgynous character, charming and emotionally rich. Paula Killen’s Anne Bonney is equally compelling, both as Reade’s and Daisy’s companion and as the play’s narrator. While Reade stays in her own time, Bonney guides Daisy through the play and delivers lectures to the audience, complete with slides, about the biological, emotional, and sociological impact of pregnancy. Both pirates are pregnant and joyful about giving birth, celebrating their bodies with a pragmatic mysticism that grounds the play by uniting the three young women as they grow “large with child.”

Against the fantastical history of the pirates Daisy and her mother seem plain at first. But Cynthia Orthal and Ann Stevenson Whitney create a relationship that is immediately accessible and full of rich conflict. Orthal’s Daisy is both brilliant and somewhat unhinged, someone to worry over and respect. Whitney expresses the mother’s obsessive ordinariness and cynical intelligence, creating an abusive but sympathetic character. Both women explore and expand the boundaries of safety and convention, increasing our understanding in the process.

John Culbert’s white-wood raked set is a clever theatrical jungle gym, changing easily from a mail boat to a pirate ship and finally, with a subtle shift in lighting by Michael S. Philippi, to the island. The pirate ship’s rigging always surrounds the action, as if we were suspended in the world of Daisy’s imagination. In the end, this world feels very real: it’s become a place where identities and destinies can be shaped with an adventurous twist and unexpected consequences.

Litwak and the cast–which includes the versatile Jeffrey Hutchinson, playing all the men–won’t let us settle comfortably into adventure, however. The island is not the secure place Daisy imagines it to be; winter is approaching, as are childbirth and child rearing. The pirates’ lives didn’t end easily, and I suspect Daisy’s journey will be as challenging. Still, adventure and the companionship of adventurers is clearly preferable to the mother’s self-destructive creed: “No one is putting up a fight–we don’t do that sort of thing!”

It’s exciting to see smart theater that shows the highs and lows of putting up a fight–of giving birth to a baby, a culture, and a self that we want to live with. Litwak shows us that we stand both alone and with our ancestors, chosen and imaginary; according to Anne Bonney, the struggle is to “steal what makes you happy…and then defend it with your life.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Johnny Subia.