PlayMakers Repertory Company’s provocative PRC2 second-stage production of Exit Cuckoo (nanny in motherland), written with perspicacity and performed with brio by New York actress and playwright and sometimes nanny Lisa Ramirez, takes its name from an ornithological oddity: The cuckoo has an odd habit of laying its eggs, one by one, in the nests of other birds, which then unknowingly incubate and rear the young cuckoos as their own offspring. When Ramirez draws an analogy between cuckoos and middle- and upper-class parents who hire nannies to rear their offspring while they pursue their careers, some of Exit Cuckoo’s Triangle audience might say — in that familiar old Southern expression — she has quit preaching and gone to meddling.
But, oh, what wonderful and timely meddling it is, to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable (to borrow another phrase). Ramirez, who still nannies when her theater schedule allows, began her theatrical career in San Francisco and turned to nannying to make ends meet after she moved to New York City. In Exit Cuckoo, Lisa Ramirez turns a gimlet eye on the nouveau riche and other young professionals who employ domestic workers, for long hours at a pittance and usually without benefits such as vacation or sick leave — nannies to babysit what should be — but often isn’t — the parents’ most precious asset: their children.
It is the nanny who becomes the child’s boon companion and confidant during most waking hours, listens to childish babble, dries children’s tears, etc. It is little wonder that the bond between nanny and child sometimes becomes stronger than the bond between mother and child — although that bond can be severed, on a parental whim, in an instant.
Lisa Ramirez not only transforms her own experiences as a nanny for dramatic fodder in Exit Cuckoo, but she dramatizes the stories of a veritable United Nations of nannies whom she meets in the park while nannying or at employment agencies or in bars where domestic workers unwind. Like a chameleon, Ramirez slips beneath their skins by altering her body language and accent at will to create compelling portraits of a whole host of characters. The stories that they tell are — by turns — angry, sad, funny, and heartbreaking. They are the heart songs of the overprivileged and the underprivileged — the masters and the menials who meet in the marketplace for dependable daycare and sometimes have years-long relationships without coming one step closer to understanding each other.
Ramirez interweaves her own story with vivid vignettes of nannies from Ireland, the Caribbean, and Central and South America. She also paints unforgettable portraits of a pragmatic personnel-agency executive, a distraught grandmother who moved into Manhattan from the Bronx only to find herself competing for quality time with her grandchildren’s nanny, and mothers who begin to second-guess their decisions to try to “have it all,” when it becomes tougher and tougher to balance career demands with the responsibilities of being a wife and mother.
By adding episodes from group-therapy sessions and exploring her sometimes difficult relationship with her own mother, Lisa Ramirez peels more layers off the onion and adds emotional depth to Exit Cuckoo. Using a bare stage, a couple of cubes, a table, and a stroller for scenery and a single costume with a reversible watch cap and a sweater for props, Ramirez and director Colman Domingo have created a remarkably detailed and intensely human portrait of exploited domestic workers and their employers. Using compassion and not polemic as their guide, Ramirez and Domingo play on the audiences’ heartstrings like violinist Jascha Heifetz on his favorite 1742 ex-David Guarneri del Gesù.
SECOND OPINION: Jan. 14th Raleigh, NC Triangle Arts & Entertainment review by Susie Potter: http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2011/01/exit-cuckoo-ponders-deep-issues/; Jan. 13th Durham, NC Independent Weekly review by Kate Dobbs Ariail (who awarded the show 3.5 of 5 stars): http://www.indyweek.com/artery/archives/2011/01/13/choices-and-children-exit-cuckoo-comes-to-playmakers; Jan. 11th Chapel Hill, NC Daily Tar Heel preview by Carson Blackwelder: http://www.dailytarheel.com/index.php/article/2011/01/exit_cuckoo_reects_on_domestic_workers; and June 23rd Chapel Hill, NC 1380 WCHL interview with Joseph Haj: http://wchl1360.com/detailswide.html?id=14974. (To read Triangle Arts & Entertainment’s online version of the Jan. 10th Triangle Theater Review preview by Robert W. McDowell, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2011/01/in-exit-cuckoo-ex-nanny-lisa-ramirez-exposes-the-myth-of-motherhood/.)
PlayMakers Repertory Company presents EXIT CUCKOO (nanny in motherland), written and performed by Lisa Ramirez, at 7:30 p.m. Jan. 15 and 2 and 7:30 p.m. Jan 16 in the Elizabeth Price Kenan Theatre in the Center for Dramatic Art, 120 Country Club Rd., at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, NC 27514.
TICKETS: $25-$35, except all tickets $10 for the 7:30 p.m. Jan. 16th performance.
BOX OFFICE: 919/962-PLAY or http://www.playmakersrep.org/tickets/.
GROUP RATES (10+ tickets): 919/843-2311, firstname.lastname@example.org, or http://www.playmakersrep.org/tickets/groupsales.aspx.
VIDEO PREVIEW: http://exitcuckoo.com/exitcuckoovideo.html.
The Play: http://exitcuckoo.com/ (official website).
The Playwright/Performer: http://exitcuckoo.com/ (official website).
The Director: http://www.colmandomingo.com/ (official website), http://ibdb.com/person.php?id=417633 (Internet Broadway Database), and http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0231458/ (Internet Movie Database).
Robert W. McDowell is editor and publisher of Triangle Theater Review, a FREE weekly e-mail theatrical newsletter that provides more comprehensive, in-depth coverage of Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill theater than all of the other news media combined. This review is reprinted with permission from Triangle Theater Review.
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To read all of Robert W. McDowell’s Triangle Theater Review previews and reviews online at Triangle Arts & Entertainment, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/author/robert-w-mcdowell/.