By Laura Mullaney
Decked out in shimmery leggings with stars on them, and sparkly earrings to match, Pam Levin quite literally shines as she dances around the stage, mouthing the words to Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way,” waving her arms in the air, and encouraging the audience to join her as she celebrates uniqueness and equality. It’s instantly apparent that Gaga’s words mean far more to Ms. Levin and her family than they might to just another tween. It is the anthem that her family used to get through the past year of their child’s transition from female to male. The dance break, while brief, represents the positivity that washes over the whole piece.
Ms. Levin is so unapologetically joyful, sympathetic and resilient that you can’t help but smile. Oftentimes, it feels as though she’s still writing this story, which gives it an authentic, human feeling.
“Tales of Modern Motherhood Part 2: Gender and Identity” is the second in a series, following a first part that previously premiered at United Solo. At first, it reads remarkably like any traditional family story. Ms. Levin is a married mother of two children. But it’s revealed early on that Pam’s youngest child, Darby, has begun to question her gender. The first scene shows Ms. Levin struggling to indicate Darby’s gender on an application for summer camp‑unable to place a check next to the M or the F. It’s a question that, societally, we’ve become accustomed to‑on job applications, on the SAT, at the doctor’s office, etc. Despite increased representation of trans stories in the media, Ms. Levin’s story carries a profound uniqueness, filling in gaps with a parental perspective. Within Ms. Levin’s narrative, we learn Darby’s story and enter his world‑complete with video footage that documents his transition and plants us right in the Levin family.
As the story progresses, we’re taken through several milestones of Darby’s (and Ms. Levin’s) journey‑kindergarten graduation, a pool party, a mohawk haircut, and several Jewish holidays. With each recounted memory, the audience is told about the many times Darby fought against his prescribed gender‑wanting to cut his hair short and to ditch dresses for pantsuits. He even asks his mother “how old she needs to be to get a penis,” which leaves Ms. Levin with far more questions than answers.
Ms. Levin has an astute gift for playing multiple characters at once‑a necessity for any strong solo actor. Whether she’s imitating her husband (her hand makes a great beard), her overbearing mother, little Darby with his thick lisp, or her friend the therapist, each member of her community uniquely enters and interacts with the space. Because of the strong character work, the audience gets a better sense of Ms. Levin through the way she brings others into her world.
One of the things that I deeply appreciated about the way Ms. Levin presents her relationship with Darby is its truthfulness. While it’s clear that she’s a fantastic, deeply compassionate mother, watching your child transform is, as Ms. Levin articulates, beautiful, but also terrifying. Throughout the play, Ms. Levin returns to the question of whether Darby is a tomboy going through a phase, or whether Darby really wishes to transition to male. While she actively wants to support Darby’s decisions, the fear or letting your child make a life‑altering decision at age six can, of course, be daunting. Ms. Levin’s story also raises the question of whether gender should always be defined. As she struggles to identify her child’s gender on the camp registration form, something she must do twice in the play, Ms. Levin wonders why we even need to fit ourselves into a tiny box. Her questions don’t have answers, giving this second iteration of “Tales of Motherhood” layers and layers of depth.
Darby’s journey leads him to transition during the first day of summer camp, after Ms. Levin has spoken with friends, family members, and the camp staff. I felt drawn to the way Ms. Levin so eloquently articulates the aftermath of the transition. In a particularly poignant scene in which Ms. Levin is driving, she speaks to Darby’s sister Bella about the change that will be taking place in their family. Bella resists, confused about what this means. In the same scene, Darby’s two friends confess to Ms. Levin that they keep forgetting about Darby’s new pronouns and accidentally use “she/her/hers.” But rather than ridicule them for struggling to process this change, Ms. Levin works with them to make this information more accessible, never once diminishing the struggle that transitioning can have on those who occupy the same orbit as the person experiencing the change.
The story (and its impactful, yet simple message that “being different is a good thing”) is clear, but it never beats you over the head. Ms. Levin’s candor is refreshing. While she honors her strength, she never paints herself to be the hero‑even making fun of a unibrow sported by Darby’s classmate.
“Tales of Motherhood (Part 2)” is sugar‑coated, of course. But in this case, we don’t mind having a sweet tooth. As I watched Ms. Levin beaming, while watching footage of her son dancing at a family party, while she took her final bow, I believe the whole theater could feel Ms. Levin’s unwavering support permeate the space.
“Tales of Modern Motherhood Part 2: Gender and Identity”
Written and Performed by Pam Levin
Directed by Mark Hatfield
October 21 at 7 PM
Photo: courtesy of the production
2019 United Solo Theater Festival
410 West 42nd Street
New York City
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LAURA MULLANEY is a New-Jersey native who has had a lifelong interest in the performing arts. Previously, she has written for American Theatre Magazine and Limelight, the official newsletter for Actors Theatre of Louisville. Currently, Laura works in arts marketing and communication roles promoting theatre. More at: www.laura-mullaney.com.