By Cynthia Darling
Cathleen O’Malley’s “Milkdrunk” is a forthright examination of giving birth and becoming a new mother. No passive presentation, this is a resounding yawp of motherhood. For its sheer truth, the show is like nothing I’ve seen before on this topic. Ms. O’Malley’s powerful and subtle physicality delivers us viscerally into each scene, all love and profanity, poop and milk, and miracle.
Ms. O’Malley strikes a range of emotional notes. She has a bright‑eyed countenance, her face a palette across which varied and deep emotions glow, always with her sincere, direct gaze. I was moved by the way Ms. O’Malley enacted the birth of her daughter, without props, using only words and movement. Through her words, sounds, and gestures, we were completely in the thrall of this emotional and physical moment, in a way that I have never seen before on film or stage. She got to the spirit of birth in this manner‑almost dancing the birth‑capturing its essence.
Her detail in the show is perfect, attuned to the absurdities and uniqueness of motherhood. She planned to have her placenta made into pills “to deliver my own organ unto myself,” she proclaims. After all, “How many times will you have a chance to eat your own placenta?”
The “how are you” she receives from an acquaintance upon her first time out without the baby after giving birth is a gift of comedy as well as deep emotion. After she internally catalogues all of the ways she could possibly answer such a question, her reply of “I’m enjoying my baby” feels like the only true answer, even while it so woefully fails to capture the extent of her experience.
At a breastfeeding support group, Ms. O’Malley meets other moms so they can “convalesce our broken boobies.” She is exposed to many techniques there, but all she really needs is the “lean back method” of breastfeeding, she says. Her feeling at the group is clear: “We are mama baby jungle cats.” And yet, even with all of this support, we find her, at one moment, holding her baby, yelling into the void, “When do I pee?”
Hilariously, she meditates on her ability to produce milk. Her free‑associative wordplay on the verb “to milk” shows that she feels she has been taken over by this new power. As she muses, “I milk, therefore I am,” she recalls how her own mother told her there were only two things in life that didn’t disappoint her: nursing and Tupperware.
Ms. O’Malley’s chair work onstage gives a sense of her control and skills as a performer. She deftly denotes a new scene through a simple tight pivot of the chair. Additionally, that chair becomes a prop for carrying, hiding behind, dancing with and giving birth upon.
Ms. O’Malley’s renditions of being a baby are particularly brilliant. One might expect such a portrayal by an adult actor to be almost impossible to carry out. But she captures the essence of an infant’s innocent stretch and tenderness deftly. She moves her mouth, mimicking the sucking motion of a baby caught in sleep. In another depiction, she is all limbs, wonderfully free in the crib.
Ms. O’Malley moves from the intimate and personal to the political. She begins one scene: “We are so fucked up,” and riffs upon this theme in wordplay and incisive critique of what society expects of mothers in areas such as work, child‑rearing, emotional sharing, and healing. It’s times like this that the play reaches its full multidimensionality.
When Ms. O’Malley lets loose with an all‑out, no‑holds‑barred scream (and then another and another) about three quarters into the show, the moment is arresting not only for the power of the sound, but also for its portrayal of the emotional ground‑zero of motherhood. It is awful, and she doesn’t mince.
“Milkdrunk” is a clarion call not just for mothers but for society. Its tenderness makes it a living, breathing evocation of new life. Her performance asks us to look at birth and motherhood straight on, without taboo, fear or judgment. In doing so, we may emerge, like Ms. O’Malley herself, able to more fully enjoy this old‑as‑time, and unflinchingly reexamined, enterprise of motherhood.
Written and Performed by Cathleen O’Malley
Directed by Elaine Feagler
Composed by Brian Bacon
October 20 at 6 PM
Photo: courtesy of the production
2019 United Solo Theatre Festival
410 West 42nd Street
New York City
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CYNTHIA DARLING is a writer and teacher living in Hell’s Kitchen. A writer for NAfME’s Teaching Music magazine for many years, she also wrote for New York Family magazine. She is currently working toward an MFA in Creative Writing with the Bluegrass Writers Studio. Her fiction and nonfiction appear in Louisiana Literature, Schuylkill Valley Journal, and Wanderlust Journal.