Someday Productions LLC and Pillow Talking are pleased to present the following review for MILK by the Thrown Stone Theatre Company
Through August 5th
When I first heard that there was a production of a new play called Milk, I immediately thought it was a stage adaptation of the 2008 critically acclaimed film of the same name about political activist Harvey Milk, who was the first openly gay person to be elected in California. I was both surprised and elated when Milk turned out to be a U.S. premiere of a new play by Ross Dunsmore which had nothing to do with Harvey Milk. Don’t get me wrong. I think Sean Penn did a great job as Harvey Milk. I also think a stage adaptation about Harvey Milk would make for great theatre. I am pleased to report, however, that the play that I saw was a great piece of theatre.
Experienced director Jason Peck does a fantastic job at creating a haunting, highly intense drama that looks at the basic needs of humankind. As he states in his director’s note, “Milk is a play about love, nourishment, and connection.” It centers on three couples in three different stages of life who, like the conceit used in the pilot of the popular TV show Modern Family, interconnect with each other at the episode. The interconnection between the three couples does not feel contrived as one might expect. In fact, like everything about this play, it seems perfectly natural.
The three couples are played by six extraordinary actors: Alexandra Perlwitz (Steph), Aidan Meachem (Ash), Alana Arco (Nicole), Jonathan Winn (Danny), Cyrus Newitt (Cyril), and Melody James (May). Not a weak link anywhere in this perfectly cast play.
When I teach interpersonal communication courses, inevitably Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs comes up. (I am certain my wife and co-reviewer will bring this up since she teaches psychology and will do it more justice than I will.) Essentially, Maslow’s hierarchy consists of five levels of human motivation with self-actualization being the top and the ultimate goal. The penultimate level is esteem. But before esteem or self-actualization can be reached, the three lower rungs of the pyramid must be attained. From bottom up, they are physical needs like food and shelter; safety needs like having a secure environment; and love and a sense of belonging need. Obviously, if one of these three levels are missing, one cannot attain self-esteem and eventually self-actualization.
Each of the three couples are trapped within these three lower levels. They all are searching for life’s basic needs: food, shelter, and safety. But, more importantly, they also are searching for love and a sense of belonging. There is a Willy Loman or “everyman” type of feel to the entire play. For example, we only know the couples by their first names. To a large extent, the characters represent pairs of couples from three distinct generations. A mother’s milk is necessary for an infant’s growth, health and even life. The middle couple – Nicole and Danny – have just had a baby and Nicole is having a problem breast feeding. It seems her infant (who is not named yet—another significant point that the baby can represent any baby) does not or cannot properly suckle. Nicole and Danny become desperate, their stress spilling over into their relationship. The milk is a metaphor itself for the play’s overarching themes of love, belonging, and connection.
The everyman motif is further enhanced by the minimalist set, staging and blocking. There were no set pieces other than two red chairs and two silver tables. The play as a whole is comprised of brief scenes of the couples. Mr. Peck’s masterful staging avoided what could have been perceived as short choppy scenes by having the actors rearrange the tables and chairs before each new scene. It also was a nice touch that all of the actors remained in character during the scene changes and even interacted with each other.
Milk was produced by Thrown Stone, a relatively new theatre company in Ridgefield which is the brainchild of Jason Peck and Jonathan Winn. According to its mission statement, “Thrown Stone cultivates artists and audiences through opportunity, education, and membership, emphasizing new work and unconventional approaches to repertoire.” With a knock-out play, an impressive list of sponsors, Thrown Stone is off to a good start and Pillow Talking cannot wait to see what it will be doing next.
One of the most essential foundations of the psychosocial human experience is trust. A pioneer in our early understanding of this was Erik Erikson, a German-American developmental psychologist whose focus was on the quality of the environment in which a child is raised and the resultant effects on his or her growth, adjustment, and identity. Early life, Erikson explained, is characterized by the first of eight developmental stages; that of trust vs. mistrust, which is fostered by relationships and responsiveness in infancy. It helps to form our sense of self and answer the questions: Am I loved? Is the world a safe and reliable place? Learning trust at this stage begins with having one’s basic needs met – and food is among the most fundamental elements. Food, for an infant, is milk.
Milk is the fluid of life. It symbolizes the mother, fertility, and abundance. It is nurturing. It is part of a life-enabling circuit. From birth, humans must consume it for their very survival.
Abraham Maslow, an American psychologist, also talked of a hierarchy of needs – prioritizing biological/physiological needs (such as food) and safety needs (feeling a sense of security) as essential for being. At any age if these are compromised, we cannot focus on much else. Higher needs, Maslow said, such as love and relationships, esteem and achievement, and personal growth and fulfillment will be set aside.
“Love is milk,” says the character of Nicole in the poignant, visceral play Milk by Ross Dunsmore, expertly directed by Jason Peck, founder and Co-Artistic Director of the new Thrown Stone Theatre Company of Ridgefield. Pregnant Nicole is one half of the adult couple in the 90-minute play; husband Danny is the other. Erikson’s later stage of intimacy vs. isolation is explored here, as Nicole and Danny wrestle with the bonds of their relationship. In the beginning, Nicole eagerly contemplates her impending motherhood. But as in life, things don’t always go as planned and she unexpectedly struggles to breastfeed her infant child. Danny appears supportive at first but soon falters under the emotional strain they come to endure. Their distressed and hungry newborn cries incessantly. Through Nicole’s sole life lens, love is ONLY milk. She cannot conceive that it may go beyond feeding to caregiving; a caregiver by definition gives care – he or she provides not only sustenance in whatever form necessary in addition to security and love. Nicole’s identity is fractured. It is not just her unnamed infant who is hungry – Danny also is hungry, and he’s helpless – but his needs aren’t for food, rather they are for emotional companionship.
It is all about milk. Milk as sustenance. Milk as love, life, livelihood.
So then it is hunger that Dunsmore endeavors to show us in multiple ways. Surely there is physical hunger – that awful ache when a belly is empty. But there is more as we see in Danny. Juxtaposed against the lives of Nicole and Danny are two more pairs: Steph and Ash; and Cyril and May. The former, a teenaged pair, have all of the food they need. In fact, Ash eats a whole chicken each day in an effort to “bulk up” for the girls, yet he rebuffs Steph’s romantic advances. And it is evident that Steph’s hunger is of a different kind. Like Danny, it also is an emotional hunger; one we learn is due to childhood deprivation and issues with her own mother – a pain and longing which causes her to act out in a desperate attempt to fill her emptiness. Both Steph and Ash are in Erikson’s stage of identity vs. role confusion where neither has a strong sense of self and each strive to figure out who they are.
Finally, Cyril and May are an aging couple who are penniless and starving, living without heat or electricity. Decades earlier, they also tragically lost their young child. Despite not having the most basic of Maslow’s first two needs, they are devoted to one another and manage to feed their physical, emotional, and spiritual hunger through their relationship and with memories of better times. They are barely hanging on but they subsist on dreams about wonderful meals and of their early happiness as a family. They are in what Erikson termed the final stage of ego integrity vs. despair in which they reflect on their lives with a sense of satisfaction rather than what easily could be regret.
Eventually all six lives intersect and each impacts the others in some profound way. Life goes full circle –and it all comes back to milk.
With a fantastically talented cast, Milk is alternately funny, moving, and devastating. Alexandra Perlwitz is spot-on as the snarky, petulant, hormone-driven Steph; Aidan Meachem is impressive as the quirky and questioning, chicken-eating Ash (he actually devours it on stage!). The two spiritedly play off each other with wonderful authenticity. Alana Arco is excellent as the tortured Nicole, and as a mother myself I was destroyed by her pain. Jonathan Winn (who also is founding Co-Artistic Director of Thrown Stone) brings us to the ledge as Danny, a man who is tortured, although at times by his own poor choices. Cyrus Newitt as Cyril is remarkable and Melody James is equally splendid as the fading May. They are sweetly endearing as the devoted couple who persevere despite the fact their lives could not get much worse – it is humbling to witness.
The simple black box at the Ridgefield Conservatory of Dance provides the ideal space for this production which requires little in the way of sets/scenery. The evocative power of the performances is all that is required – with the addition of two rolling tables and two red chairs which are moved about the stage by the characters between short scenes that generally alternate from pair to pair.
Kudos to Pamela Prather as Dialect Coach who successfully brought the six actors to a professional performance level. Shout-outs also to May Piantaggini as Movement Consultant; Rien Schlecht as Costume Designer and to the rest of the production crew. If this, Thrown Stone’s inaugural production, is any indication of what they have to come, I can’t wait to see their next. Bring it on Jason and Jonathan!