It’s not easy to negotiate the subject of motherhood–to chart a course between the Scylla of sentimentality and the Charybdis of gleeful attack. Yet why should it be so hard? I have a mother; you have one. I am a mother. Maybe you are too, or will be one day. But motherhood is a lost continent, a terrain so vast and intricate and overgrown with feelings that few even attempt to map it.

Veteran solo artist Jenny Magnus, who has a young child, makes the attempt in Cant, a 45-minute monologue (with songs) that’s running as part of the 15th annual Rhinoceros Theater Festival. Magnus has a lot of performance experience, but her newness as a mother gives this piece its freshness, its emotion, its honesty, and–for better or worse–its indirection. She attacks the subject not single-mindedly but somewhat distractedly, surrounding it with various characters: using as props only a folding chair and a pillowlike bag of rice, she plays good mothers, bad mothers, a self-absorbed young father, the hard-bitten mother of a mother, and a lactation consultant/nurse’s assistant.

There’s one thing about motherhood: it lands you smack-dab in the middle of the land of the body. (And you don’t get out until your children let you–if then.) Many of the threads in Cant revolve around the body, especially the act of eating, and Magnus weaves them together with ease, segueing from a song about the “sweetness of the drug” to a stand-up bit in which she sticks her butt out at us and asks “How can it be that the bigger I get the more invisible I become?” (hilarious to any woman who’s ever felt she’s no longer on the hottie radar) to a bit in which she “eats” her baby (played by the soft white bag). Every loving parent understands the desire to consume the child, which is so “delicious,” in Magnus’s word. We work backward from this scene to the mother’s sweet, drugged state, and indirectly to the drugged feeling of boredom and depression once one is stuck at home with young children, which can lead to the drug of overeating.

Hunger, feeding, and exercise all figure in Cant. When Magnus strings up the pillow to stand in for a punching bag and starts jabbing at it and talking about what an attractive person she is, we naturally assume a new mom has gone to the gym to improve her appearance and self-esteem. But no, this is the insensitive husband of a young mother. The exercise motif is Magnus’s excuse to muse about one’s relation to oneself, another issue that parenthood brings to the fore: What constitutes self-pity? What’s the value of self-sacrifice? Now that I’m “evaporating” (to use Magnus’s term), how do I maintain what’s left of me?

Sucking also figures in Magnus’s universe of consuming. Of course babies suck, but she also alludes–briefly and unsatisfactorily–to the sexual side of sucking. This section then turns into cultural commentary, as Magnus talks about TV shows and how mama and papa give us sugary foods to suck out of bottles because some things are just “too hard to look at.” The preceding section is a list of the many meanings of “cant,” and in the section before that a self-righteous mom talks about good kids being obedient and the stupid stuff kids do and how the soldiers were being good kids but nevertheless must be punished, while the prisoners were being bad and so must also be punished. Clearly a comment on Abu Ghraib and the sort of mentality that assumes the right to pass judgment on others and inflict punishment, this section is confused, possibly on purpose. You have to admire Magnus’s intent: to broaden the scope of a piece about motherhood, creating an analogy between government/cultural mavens and authoritarian or spoiling parents. But at this point the connection is sketchy and intellectual in a way that the rest of Cant is not.

Magnus embodies her characters brilliantly, though some are better conceived than others. The asshole husband is funny but a bit predictable. The lactation consultant, however, is a masterful creation, ambiguous and heartrending. Adopting a strong midwestern accent and the sweet, self-effacing but nevertheless judgmental tone of a woman deeply invested in being nice, Magnus makes us despise this seemingly prissy character–who then turns out to have a lot to say. Perhaps alluding to the final chapter in The Grapes of Wrath, when Tom Joad’s sister nurses a dying stranger, Magnus creates at the end a shocking word picture encapsulating all that’s consuming and dangerous about being a mother, or a child. The song that closes this section–and the piece–movingly evokes the certainty of separation and loss inherent in all deep love.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Robert Drea.