The role of the parent is under constant scrutiny. Choices made by parents are routinely questioned, with parents being forced to go along with state determinations about a child’s gender reassignment, or brought up on charges for letting their kids play outdoors without direct supervision, or in the case of the actresses who bought their children’s admission to top schools, parents who believe that their good intentions for their offspring warrants criminal acts. The question of how to raise children, what to prioritize, and what the goals are for American parents is at the core of the new show by New York based indie theater company The Mad Ones, Mrs. Murray’s Menagerie.
Directed by Leila Neugebauer, the stage for Mrs. Murray’s Menagerie is set in the style of a 1970’s legion hall, with a large, folding round table, a kitchen behind a low counter perfect for pot luck dinners, big windows with daylight coming in behind them, and a chalkboard. For anyone who was alive and cogent in the 1970’s and 80’s, the space, the colors, and the objects have a familiar feel. This nostalgia for past eras of American realities is something The Mad Ones do best. Their research, attention to detail, tone, nuance, and attitude are pitch perfect. The donuts are full of gluten, the coffee is percolated, the phone is rotary, and the recording devices are entirely analog.
The set up is a focus group for a popular children’s television show, Mrs. Murray’s Menagerie. Three moms (Carmen M. Herlihy, January LaVoy, and Stephanie Wright Thompson) and three dads (Phillip James Brannon, Joe Curnutte, and Michael Dalto) are led in discussion by Dale (Brad Heberlee), a moderator in plaid pants. Dale asks questions designed to draw out the participants’ true impressions of the show, while his broken-armed associate, Jim (Marc Bovino), does the heavy lifting, recording the answers via tape recorder, pencil in notebook, or on the. The story of the focus group, conducted in real time, is nearly plotless. Nevertheless, the ideas and character reveals are compelling enough to drive the 90-minute play.
The idea of a focus group for a children’s show plays right into contemporary debates over free-range kids, gender self determination for children, and the changing landscape of the relationship between government, children, and parents. The parents around the round wooden table are at first wary to talk about their own families and home lives, and in fear of judgment from the others or the moderator. It is a microcosm of what happens on present day social media platforms. Parents present their idealized children, idealized lives, where children behave, and don’t wipe snot on their sleeves, where parents never raise their voices, or let the tv babysit their kids.
As the conversation progresses, each begins to realize that what’s at stake are their beliefs as to what messages their children should be receiving from media. The tv show, Mrs. Murray’s Menagerie, is educational entertainment, providing essential life lessons about responsibility and consequences, but as they dig deeper into it, the parents take apart the hidden messages. This is a kids’ show that all the kids watch, but what is it telling them about how to consider their own reality and responsibilities?
Mrs. Murray’s Menagerie is a kid’s show that all the kids watch, that kids and parents relate to as a lingua franca of children’s entertainment. This is now a foreign concept. When my son and his friends talk about entertainment, they talk about video games, and most of the parents in my peer group have not sat down to play Fortnite.
After the play, walking out into the City, my friend and I both recalled the old jingle from Sesame Street: “a loaf of bread, a carton of milk, and a stick of butter.” Sesame Street played in my house every afternoon, but now there is no one show that is capturing the ethical imaginations of children everywhere. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t a full on fight over how best to ideologically indoctrinate the nation’s children, or what to indoctrinate them about.
The moms and dads watched sample episodes of what could be character based spin-offs of Mrs. Murray’s Menagerie, one focused on a little girl bunny character, Candace, who breaks a cello, and one about an older boy teddy bear personality, Teddy, who breaks a window. The parents discuss the ways in which the kids are held accountable. What’s interesting is that, because the audience hasn’t seen the content in question, it’s up to us to decide which of the parents has a perspective that we feel aligned with.
Ernest (Phillip James Brannon), a bookstore owning dad, sparks a new train of thought when he questions how the consequences for Candace’s destructive behavior were portrayed. “The way that Candace’s parents respond to her, you know, and they’re hugging her and saying ‘No, it’s okay,’ you know, ‘you can tell us what…’ I didn’t like that it sort of gives this idea about the parents that they were, you’re afraid of of your kid’s emotions. And you need to, you need to, you know, walk on eggshells around your child to, to make sure that they don’t have a bad reaction. I know if my kid broke it, I’m gonna say, ‘Did you break the cello?’ We don’t need to play games.”
This is exactly the same divide that parents are experiencing now. Do we coddle our children and kiss every boo-boo or do we let them nurse their own wounds? Under the guise of doing the right thing, of being compassionate and nurturing, parents in 21st Century America are dispensing with vaccinations (that great 20th Century triumph over deadly epidemics), encouraging children to swap genders both in appearance and far more dangerously with medical intervention. Instead of exposing children to the world as it is, we construct fictitious realities in which no child need ever suffer any pushback against their perceived ideas of either who they are or how the world works.
In a recent viral Facebook post, a mother recalled with pride how her pre-school age son wanted to go out to the shops in a dress. She didn’t let him know what was in store for him: ridicule, stares, laughter. When he predictably encountered it, she spoke up for him, she fought his battle, and the boy stood in his dress and cried. The dress is not a shield, and neither is a mother’s love.
Don’t we owe it to our children to let them know what’s out there in the world? To not assume that we can be a wall for them between the big meanies and their soft little emotional underbellies? If a boy is going to go out into the world in a dress, he ought to do so fully informed. So, too, the unvaccinated high schoolers should know they might get measles and die. What we have now is a situation where children are held up as isolated paradises of imagination and virtue, that nothing ought touch or diminish. But there’s no reason for that. Being engaged with the harshness of the world as well as the beauty of one’s inner life is how creative ideas are not only made but adapted for best use.
Ideological indoctrination comes from many sources, chief among them is media, entertainment, and education. Parents need to ask hard questions not about how to change society to suit their children’s emotional realities, but about how best to adapt children to live within, and change society on their own.
Meanwhile, government overreach continues to push between children and parents. In the realm of education, school districts do far more than teach academics, but advocate for moral standards as well. The problem with this, of course, is that government agencies are not, and ought not, be arbiters or morality. They have no standing, no standards upon which to base a moral perspective, other than the shifting perspectives of the loudest voices lobbying them. Ethics are an essential component of a well-rounded education, but there are standards as to how to teach ethics, and they don’t come in the form of PTA approved YouTube videos about gender unicorns.
It is up to parents to impart to children an understanding about the reality of adulthood, of what will be expected of them, of what responsibility they have for themselves, their actions, and those around them. Gloria (Stephanie Wright Thompson), single mother to a boy who bites, comments: “That’s the point of life. That’s what the shows are for, to teach kids how to take care of themselves eventually, right?”
The indie theater scene in downtown New York is a thriving incubator of new ideas. To step into one of these small houses, with paper printed programs not Playbills, and discover artists who have been working together, honing their craft for years, is to get a deeper understanding of the undercurrents of art and ideas that drive our culture. The Mad Ones’ Mrs. Murray’s Menagerie, playing at Ars Nova at Greenwich House, does more than take the pulse of our cultural ideas about ideological indoctrination and concerns about how to raise our future generations. It let’s us know that we need to settle down, to remember that each of us knows our own minds if we only take the time to guide our internal conversation, take stock, and think it through.