Who’s taking care of the children is a question that seems to become more pressing every day. Their mothers have never been the sole caregivers of the children, but taking care of their children did formerly constitute a respected job of work (if unpaid) for many women, along with the myriad other tasks that formed their contributions to the familial economic unit. Poorer women have always done other work for money, as well—including caring for richer women’s children.
But now, a couple of generations into the shifted social terrain formed by feminism (and workable family planning methods), more and more women find they can only have it all at once in the world if they have help at home. As in, a nanny. Like the cuckoo bird that lays its eggs in other birds’ nests for them to hatch and feed, these women leave their children for other women to nurture.
San Francisco theater artist Lisa Ramirez moved to New York to further her career and became a nanny the way others become waitresses and office temps. It was supposed to be a day job while she took classes and went to auditions, but in nanny-dom, she found a coil of stories that would spring her onto the stage as both writer and performer.
Ramirez has translated her experience into Exit Cuckoo (nanny in motherland), a remarkably thoughtful one-person show, which she performs through Sunday in PlayMakers Repertory Company’s second stage series, PRC2.
She deals deftly with some mighty large material—woman’s place in the world, what makes a mother, privilege and deprivation, self-involvement and self-sacrifice, the vicissitudes of class and color—tying interrelated story threads into a neat 85-minute package. (Readers of The Help will recognize these as the same issues that drove Kathryn Stockett’s 2009 novel.) While Ramirez can be dry and droll, and sometimes highly humorous in her social commentary, she is surprisingly gentle to even the most appalling of the “beige women” who expect a new kind of indentured servitude from their nannies—who “are just like part of the family” until summarily fired.
It is greatly to Ramirez’ credit that she has written and can present these characters with as much humanity as she gives to the beleaguered “United Nations of nannies.” The only character for whom she has no mercy is the leader of the therapy group she joins when the motherworld-nannyworld-artworld demands push her to the edge.
A one-person show depends mightily on the person’s ability to transform before our eyes into widely divergent characters. Ramirez excels here, with minimal help from clothing items, props and set, relying on wonderfully complete speech patterns and accents and highly communicative body language. The pattern is often that “our” nanny enters a situation, then the actress switches almost unnoticeably to the other woman in the scene—the nanny broker, the mother, her own mother, the other nannies, an irate grandmother, the speaker at a rally for domestic workers’ rights.
Right up until the final few sentences, the text is limpid, unsullied by easy sentiment or unneeded demagoguery. It is very difficult to bring something like this meditation to a close, and in the end, Ramirez slips into a bit of triteness. It is not enough to ruin the work; just enough to make you want to find out if she can avoid it in her next play, which you will definitely want to see after seeing this one.