Sylvia M. Mallory’s “The Fantastical Nature of Motherhood” Isn’t So Fantastic

"The Fantastical Nature of Motherhood" concludes March 17-20 in Cary
"The Fantastical Nature of Motherhood" concludes March 17-20 in Cary

"The Fantastical Nature of Motherhood" concludes March 17-20 in Cary
"The Fantastical Nature of Motherhood" ends March 17-20

The world premiere of The Fantastical Nature of Motherhood, a polemical and problematic play for mature audiences written, directed, and produced by Distillery Theatre Company founder and artistic director Sylvia M. Mallory, isn’t so fantastic. It is a virtually incoherent mash-up of the Roman foundation myth of Romulus and Remus and the Christian nativity story, liberally laced with four-letter words and an excoriation of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Sheryl Scott) as a promiscuous teenager carrying on simultaneous affairs with her none-too-bright classmate Joey and her teacher Mr. F (both played by Chris Muntel), cursing God, and wishing out loud that she could abort the baby Jesus. Have mercy! Where is Dr. William A. Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, when we really need him?

If The Fantastical Nature of Motherhood is supposed to be some sort of extreme feminist statement, such as pregnancy is punishment, its point eludes me. Sheryl Scott’s iconoclastic portrait of the BVM would have put Dr. Donohue in a swivet. But Scott’s portrayal Mary, like all the other characters in this play, is so two-dimensional that there is no “character” for the actress in inhabit. Chris Muntel likewise paints Joey, Mr. F, and Pop in primary colors. Mary Beth Hoots slinks around the stage on all fours as Wolf Mother, and then finds her feet to play Ma and a Woman who undergoes a graphic miscarriage.

Randi Martin-Lee adds a couple of gritty cameos as Donna, who the playwright characterizes as the Goddess of Stepford Wives (whatever that means), and a Homeless Woman suffering from ovarian cancer. Damien Lee plays a Homeless Man selling newspapers on the street corner and another Man whose role I have already forgotten. Thank God for forgetfulness.

With apologies to T.S. Eliot, The Fantastical Nature of Motherhood ends not with a bang, but a whimper — with the playing … over and over … of Alison Krauss’ haunting rendition of the traditional Appalachian spiritual “Down to the River to Pray” — from the bodacious bluegrass soundtrack of the Coen brothers’ comic movie masterpiece O Brother, Where Art Thou (2000). So, there are no curtain calls.

After the Sunday matinee last weekend, the audience was invited to linger in the storefront theater’s lobby and participate in a piece of performance art by expressing their feelings about the play on a giant canvas. I left quickly, before the fur began to fly.

SECOND OPINION: To read Triangle Arts & Entertainment’s online version of the March 9th Triangle Theater Review preview by Robert W. McDowell, click

The Distillery Theatre Company presents THE FANTASTICAL NATURE OF MOTHERHOOD, a world premiere by Sylvia M Mallory, at 8 p.m. March 18 and 19 and 2 p.m. March 20 in the Free Association Theatre Ensemble’s performance space at 267 Grande Heights Dr., located in the Harrison Pointe Shopping Center, in Cary, North Carolina 27513.

TICKETS: $20 ($15 students and seniors), except $5 Education Rush Tickets (sold 5 minutes before performance to students and teachers with ID).

BOX OFFICE: 919/729-3903,, or




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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By Robert W. McDowell

Robert W. McDowell is a Raleigh, NC-based freelance writer, editor, and critic. He has written theater, film, book, and music previews and reviews for The News & Observer, The Raleigh Times, Spectator Magazine, and Classical Voice of North Carolina, all based in Raleigh. In 1980-91, he covered business, industry, government, and education for (We the People of) North Carolina magazine, published monthly by N.C. Citizens for Business and Industry. In April 2001, McDowell started Robert's Reviews, a FREE weekly e-mail newsletter that provides comprehensive, in-depth coverage of the performing arts in the Research Triangle area of North Carolina, which includes Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill, and Carrboro. Triangle Review is the latest-and-greatest version of McDowell's original newsletter. (To start your FREE subscription, e-mail robertm748[at] and type SUBSCRIBE TR in the Subject: line.) From December 1980 until September 2017, McDowell served on the board of directors of The Cinema, Inc., a Raleigh-based nonprofit film society formed in 1966. He currently publishes a weekly list of FREE advance screenings of movies in the Triangle area. (To have your e-mail address added to this FREE list, e-mail robertm748[at] and type SUBSCRIBE FFL FREE in the Subject: line.) McDowell also co-edited and supervised the production of Jim Valvano's Guide to Great Eating (JTV Enterprises, 1984), a 224-page sports celebrity cookbook; and he served as a fact checker for Valvano: They Gave Me a Lifetime Contract, and Then They Declared Me Dead (Pocket Books, 1991).


  1. Dear Mr. McDowell:

    I think that you missed the point on this play all together. I guess that I am glad that it drove you to respond at all which is somewhere around 10% of the point. Yes, this is not a straight forward, simple narrative play. It uses allegory in a series of short vignettes to build a larger statement. Experimenting with narrative structure and challenging the audience is part of The Distillery’s mission. (As a fellow artist, I don’t see the point in doing safe work.) The larger point of the play that seems to have been missed is looking at the sacrifices themselves. The sacrifices that any mother makes just by having a child and losing part of herself to the needs of someone else condemned by the combination of hope, fear, and the impossible expectations that we have for the next generation. The mother is giving up her free will to the acts of another sentient being. The play uses allegory of the virgin mother – Immaculate Conception – to show the taking of freewill and by extension power from Mary. Alas, the stillborn baby is the restoration of power to Mary. The man and woman miscarrying is the flip side to Mary. This is a couple that willingly had a child and had it forcefully taken away thus losing their freewill.

    The text even talks about how Mary’s child is not “Jesus”, but the next blessed child as a means of talking about how every parent thinks that their child is perfect and destined for greatness. The idea of the goddess of Stepford wives, which seems to confuse McDowell, reads simply to me as the pressure and push of society on women to have children and to be the perfect wife and mother (the perfect woman). Donna and Mary both play the juxtaposition of the ideas as women as mothers, as objects of sexual desire and how the world views “the made up house wife”.

    Dr. William A. Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, theoretical view on this play, just like Mr. McDowell’s, would be falling on deaf ears. It’s not that hard to understand the use of abstraction of religious characters as archetypes to talk about larger issues. I am not sure if the large offense to Mr. McDowell was the use of Christian mythology in the play in general, that they were smashed together with Roman mythology or that the color blind casting lead to a black Mary. I think if you look at the contribution of both mythologies on theater history, it’s not a new concept. Once again, I take the homeless man selling papers on the street corner (a possible nod to Buddhism) to be the opposite side of the coin from Donna; the everyman type character sitting on the sideline as a passive observer. This can also be looked at as the idea of “god” watching and doing nothing as events play themselves out down here on earth.

    As for the lack of curtain call, it was needed to let the play breath a little. I think there needed to be more indication to the audience, but the conceptual idea I felt was strong. The work may be difficult, but at least this theater gives the audience some credit to come up with its own views on the work and forces them to think about the piece as more than mindless entertainment.

    Distillery, please keep on doing intellectually challenging work or else Raleigh will be left with mindless entertainment instead of art.

    Side note: As someone who added to the performance art piece at the end of the play, I think if Mr. McDowell had contributed to the performance art piece with his strong opinion, it would have made a more interesting response than his review.
    Dean Moriarty

  2. Dean:

    While I haven’t seen this piece by The Distillery, I have seen other works…and yes, they do “challenge” the audience. However, I do not think they are the only theatre creating “art” here in the area.

    You make the statement :Distillery, please keep on doing intellectually challenging work or else Raleigh will be left with mindless entertainment instead of art.

    I think there are a number of theatres in the area that create strong intellectually challenging art…REP, Burning Coal are two that leap to mind immediately. Then if you broaden it a little, you have Manbites Dog and Little Green Pig in Durham, all the work being done at Common Ground, and Deep Dish in Chapel Hill.

    We need to support all these groups.


  3. Travis
    Yes, R.E.P. is a great theatre. I was lucky enough to see a fantastic version of Bug there a while back. I like the things that R.E.P. is doing and I am excited to check out their new space. I am interested to see if the new space has the same close and in your face feel that the upstairs temporary space had. Burning Coal Theatre I think does a dance between work on the edge and safe work. (Which I understand is needed to pay the bills). With a season comprised of a political David Edgar play, Blue, Crowns, St. Nicholas and To Kill a Mockingbird with its subsequent remount, I find their second stage, educational outreach (KidsWrite!) and New Works series to be where more interesting stuff happens. Having done an interesting take on the Cherry Orchard, Cowboy month, Playground, Howie the Rookie, Limbo, and the KidsWrite! play Bowling for Blueberries. I think that the Carrboro Art Center also does interesting work with the 10 by 10 festival in the summers, and they did a great production of Living Dead in Denmark back in October with their teens. But, I think this is why we need a review staff that can talk about avant-garde and abstract work in the area. Unfortunately, I am relatively new to the area and haven’t checked out much of the Durham scene yet, but Man Bites Dog and Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern has great street cred and I plan on checking out their next shows. Raleigh needs a response to the gritty scene in the rest of the triangle. Yes we need to support all these groups! I am booking tickets to shows as I am writing this.

  4. Dean:

    As a former Southern Baptist and (very briefly) Presbyterian who joined the Episcopal Church in 1989, I can tell you that sacrilegious depiction of the Virgin Mary in The Fantastical Nature of Motherhood is deeply offensive, not just to Catholics, but to Christians in general. But, in my opinion, the incoherence of the script, not its iconoclastic nature, is Motherhood’s biggest defect. For details of what I had to say about this not-ready-for-prime-time drama, see my review above, which doesn’t include any mention of race or color-blind casting — because they had nothing to do with any of my criticisms.

    That said, I would like to correct one frequent misconception that Mr. Moriarity repeats in his Comment. Most Protestants — and many Catholics — don’t know that the Immaculate Conception refers to the conception of Mary, not Jesus. The Catholic Church believes that the Blessed Virgin Mary was conceived without sin. It also believes that she remained a virgin all of her life and never produced any brothers and sisters — living or stillborn — for the baby Jesus. You can look those two basic tenets of the Catechism of the Catholic Church up here:

    Robert W. McDowell

  5. I am not one to ever really chime in about performances or stake any claim in reviewing them, but my appreciation of theatre – deeply rooted in my experience with music, visual art, and literature, as well as my longstanding support and admiration for the arts – has brought me here. Admittedly, I’ve sat on this review for several days and believe there are some valid, grounded concerns by all parties that have written in – but here are my two cents, if only to pull the dialogue out from its present corner.

    Full disclosure – I’m an acquaintance of the playwright, but I’m writing in as someone who finds merit in discussing unconventional and thought-provoking art, whether it’s a disturbing short film tucked away in a gallery, a confusing art installation that simultaneously begs and rejects your attention, or a play like the one we focus on here.

    For a moment, can we consider the extent to which new works run the risk of being completely swept away with praise or eaten up by the public? And regardless of which direction the response turns, I strongly believe it’s the responsibility of the arts community to create an environment where ideas, statements, and debates can be explored, expressed, and challenged in different mediums. And whether some iteration is believed to be an utter failure, well, that should be accepted, too. If we hope to see the arts scene continually grow, then we have to work towards promoting that vision, not tear it down.

    As a Raleigh native, I’ve been very proud and excited to see the Triangle arts scene burgeon over the years. So, it was really disappointing and upsetting to see that Mr. McDowell’s review was undercut by his indignant tone and destructive criticism. I don’t mind that he abhorred the show to the n-th degree, believed it was offensive, and probably should have walked out after the first few minutes. I do mind, however, that he slammed every corner of the play without offering real morsels of conversation or respect.

    I attended the show on two different nights – opening night and the closing Sunday matinee. I can honestly say that the performances invoked slightly different responses from me, and the latter was probably less engaging given the time of day. The Distillery is just getting off the ground, and while they were able to create a very nice (albeit unusual) space in F.A.T.E.’s venue, it was by no means an ideal location for this kind of show; they really needed to be in a small black box theatre, but given the options for performance space and the limitations of being a newer group, I’m sure some of that played into it.

    All that said, seeing the show in the evening took away some of the distractions that existed during the daytime performance; the natural light coming through the perimeter curtains wasn’t an issue and your attention could focus better on the actors, even between the abrupt scene changes that required cast members to switch props or outfits on the perimeter of the “stage.” I was a bit clueless about the context for the play before I attended it – I only knew that it was short (less than an hour running time), experimental, and boded a bizarre list of character names. But I was intrigued.

    So much of what has been discussed in these comments are the issues with plot and the distasteful (or “virtually incoherent mash-up”) of myths and stories. But none of that highlighted what I found to be the greatest takeaways of the show. That said, here is what struck me the most about The Fantastical Nature of Motherhood: the earnest portrayals by each cast member, especially given the incongruous performance space and the continual switch from one vignette to the other; the visceral experience that I had as an audience member, which was alarming, unexpected, yet seemingly critical to the “what’s at stake?” question about the play; and the lingering sense of displacement.

    Whether it was the bewildering calls of Wolf Mother, the rape scene between Ma and Pa that most would avoid bringing up in conversation, or the distressing naivety that we see in Mary – all these moments work to unsettle and confront the audience member: How are women transformed by motherhood? How are our perceptions of family and individual discretion reimagined through the lens of pregnancy? What is lost, gained, and in conflict as we rethink our womanhood, whether from the stance of mother or child? How is my body paradigmatic of that process? Can we locate selfhood, independence, guilt, intimacy, sacrifice, (dis)association, unconditional love, doubt and reluctance, strength, resentment, and even disarmed compliance amongst any or all this?

    It would be reductive to walk away believing that the play belligerently campaigned against pregnancy; in my opinion, there was far more integrity at work. Rather, the play created a space to reimagine the contours of motherhood, feminine expectations, sexuality, individual coming-of-age, and the conflicted tenets entrenched in all these topics. And it did so with an unpredictable rhythm, set by the pace of each vignette; I was never really comforted by the show, and I don’t think it ever really intended to provide that kind of resolve.

    There are two prominent quotes that poet and longtime feminist Adrienne Rich wrote in her 1976 book, Of Woman Born:

    “The ocean, whose tides respond, like women’s menses, to the pull of the moon, the ocean which corresponds to the amniotic fluid in which human life begins, the ocean on whose surface vessels (personified as female) can ride but in whose depth sailors meet their death and monsters conceal themselves … it is unstable and threatening as the earth is not; it spawns new life daily, yet swallows up lives; it is changeable like the moon, unregulated, yet indestructible and eternal.” (Chapter 2)

    “As her sons have seen her: the mother in patriarchy: controlling, erotic, castrating, heart-suffering, guilt-ridden, and guilt-provoking; a marble brow, a huge breast, an avid cave; between her legs snakes, swampgrass, or teeth; on her lap a helpless infant or a martyred son. She exists for one purpose: to bear and nourish the son.” (Chapter 8)

    I point to these selections because they underscore the imagery and nearly undeniable ambivalence of motherhood that I took away as the central message of the play – not the blasphemous descriptions of the Virgin Mary or any of the other hotly contested religious allusions. And, incidentally, I’m a Christian, too. But this discussion shouldn’t fixate on whose understanding of Christianity is the most accurate or whether or not cursing God is an excusable “offense,” as one might suggest. To say that the characters are all one-dimensional is one thing, but to dismiss the entire work without giving it any respectful criticism was disheartening.

    Sure, we can talk over the ways it could have been polished, and in a different incarnation, we may see that it receives a totally different response. But for anyone who didn’t get a chance to see the play or have dismissed it based on Mr. McDowell’s review, I merely write to offer an alternative sentiment – I appreciate the passion, professionalism, and respect that the cast gave to this show; the playwright for putting raw but provocative content in front of us; and for any of the other attendees who walked away with something beyond instant gratification, which is possibly one of the most difficult and humbling realizations of motherhood.

    The world can swallow you up and throw you aside, but it also welcomes celebration, beauty, and strength. For that reason, I found value in The Fantastical Nature of Motherhood; it gave a distinct voice to very a fundamental narrative, whether or not it was understood, liked, or appreciated by anyone.

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