Calm Down Mother

by Megan Terry

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As she does in so much of her work, in Calm Down Mother Megan Terry examines women’s roles both within and without the family structure, depicting the tensions as well as the bonds that exist between women in various situations. The play is set in the present, in the immediacy of women’s lives, in the day-to-day tasks and experiences that circumscribe a woman’s universe.

The play’s key scenes develop out of one another, drifting from one to the next in a movement that grows out of the opening scene in which the three characters are bonded together in a human representation of primitive plant life at the bottom of some primordial swamp. From the initial portrayal of woman at the moment of creation with all the universe before her, the action moves through successive scenes, dramatizing the societal expectations that continue subtly to oppress women: the cultural insistence on beauty as the most desirable female trait; the taboo on visible female anger; the valorization of a woman who, at the expense of her own happiness, puts everyone else’s needs first; the expectation that women should grow old quietly; the still-prevalent image of woman as plaything; and the universal view of woman as reproductive machine. The last scene suggests that from the cultural point of view, women cannot seize the universe because their role is passive and maternal rather than active and societal.

At the heart of the play is Terry’s feminism of inclusion. Her three characters portray the rich variety of American women: senior citizens and teenagers, career women and prostitutes, mothers and daughters, friends and colleagues, allies and competitors. These women experience the range of emotions from elation to anger, apathy to celebration, envy to love. Terry’s women are acquiescent, defiant, self-righteous, forgiving, practical, romantic, and above all, human. They are all Everywoman. Not one is “a furry animal plaything”; each one wants, in her own way, to be accepted as “a living loving blinding mind.”

The one-act play is an unforgiving dramatic genre for the less-than-gifted playwright, but in Terry’s skillful hands, the form becomes both entertainment and forum. Deftly and with considerable humor, she appropriates the techniques of both film and theater in the service of transformational drama. Transitions between scenes are reminiscent of fades, dissolves, and jump cuts on the motion-picture screen. Even the voiceover with which the play opens is reminiscent of a cinematic device often employed to provide historical or background information. Terry also plays on the audience’s peculiar relationship with a theatrical production—the fact that audiences are aware of the dual identities of the actors who are, simultaneously, performers and dramatic characters. Thus she forces the audience to participate imaginatively in the transformations on stage, in the performers’ frequent transitions from one role to another, in the creating and undermining of stereotypes and prescribed roles.

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Critical Overview