The character of Medea from Greek mythology is often evoked as a shorthand for bad mothering. She was, after all, the woman who killed her children as part of her revenge against Jason, the husband who betrayed her and left her for another woman.
But Medea’s story, like motherhood itself, is complicated: from Medea’s point of view, Jason’s abandonment leaves her young sons with no future, so to kill them is to spare them a fate that she sees as worse than death. By her rather twisted logic, the murder of her children is an act of maternal love.
The complicated logic of maternal love – its fierceness, its rages, its tenderness, and its resentments – is at the heart of Allison Gregory’s new play Not Medea, which interweaves Euripides’ version of the Medea legend with the story of a Woman (Drew Leigh Willliams) who has her own parenting tragedy to cope with.
The conceit of Gregory’s play is that the Woman has come to the theater to see a production of Medea, taking a rare night off from a weekend in which she has sole custody of her very young daughter, Alcyon. She arrives late, because of babysitter issues, and after some initial nattering at the rest of the audience she is drawn, through some unexplained device, into the play Medea itself, as the title character, where her own experiences as a mother who has made regrettable parenting decisions get juxtaposed, mirrored, and compared with Medea’s. What follows is something of a therapy session for the Woman – Gregory uses the Medea material to allow the Woman to make sense of, and come to terms with, the loss of her adopted daughter, Electra, who died in an accident that stemmed from one of those everyday moments of inattention that any parent might have.
Williams is engaging as both the Woman and as Medea, and her emotional journey through anguish, guilt, self-recrimination, and rationalization is moving and thought-provoking, as are the parallels drawn by the play between Medea’s anger at Jason and the Woman’s bitterness toward her own ex (also named Jason), who has also left her for another woman. But the play struggles to gel into coherence. To begin with, the fiction that the Woman is an audience member feels like a forced contrivance that raises more questions than the play agrees to answer. The Woman shifts back and forth between interacting with the Chorus (Elizabeth Boyke) and Jason (Allan Snyder) as if she were Medea in the world of the play-within-the-play Medea, and interacting with us, the audience, as if she were a modern human being in our world. During those latter interactions the Chorus/Boyke is often part of the scene, but it’s unclear what or who she represents in those moments – that is, she doesn’t seem to have a status as an “actor” in the world in which the Woman is an audience member, which muddies the distinction Gregory seems to want to establish between the fictional “real world” and the play-within-a-play. It’s also never clear what happens to draw the Woman into the world of Medea – one minute she’s futzing with her umbrella and the next she’s suddenly intoning lines from Euripides. The fact that she’s given both of her children names from Greek mythology is a bit too clever by half; the fact that she’s left her remaining daughter home alone, in what amounts to an act of criminal child negligence (the photo she shows us is of a child under the age of five!) beggars belief, particularly given the circumstances of her other daughter’s fatal accident.
The play is at its best where it uses the Medea myth to deconstruct contemporary myths of motherhood and offer an honest and unflinching account of what women lose when they become mothers – things like sleep, time, freedom, and autonomy – and of the taboo resentments women may harbor against the creatures who have robbed them of those things. That is to say: both Medea and the Woman have reasons for being “bad mothers,” reasons that the play makes both comprehensible and fully relatable.