Raising Medusa: Moms & Their Teenage Daughters | Barbara Lau’s New Play Premieres at Riverside Theatre

Riverside Theatre in Iowa City presents the world premiere of Barbara Lau’s Raising Medusa, with (from left) Jaclyn Johnson, Laura Tatar, and Nancy Youngblut. (Photo by Bob Goodfellow)

One thing I’ve  learned in my seven years of part-time parenting is that when I have an especially tough day, it’s great to hear from somebody who’s been there. I turn to people because there’s precious little in American literature that addresses the age-old question of how to parent a teenager, someone who’s no longer a child physically, but not nearly an adult. How can we—children and parents—lovingly find our way through the often painful transformation?

Over the past three years Barbara Lau, a fellow English instructor at Kirkwood who’s still riding the ups and downs of her second daughter’s adolescence, has crystallized these tumultuous emotions into poems, put them in the mouths of a combative mother and daughter, given them a hip all-female Greek chorus, and turned them all loose in Raising Medusa, which premiered April 2 and runs through April 19 at Riverside Theatre in Iowa City.

Poet to Playwright

Barbara has 19 years’ experience as a parent, but she has been writing short verse for even longer. Her first book of poems, The Long Surprise, won the 2000 X. J. Kennedy Poetry Prize from the Texas Review Press. When she started work on a second book, the upheaval in her relationship with her elder daughter trumped everything, so mother poems flowed from her pen. The poetry expressed surprise at how difficult parenting was past the age of 10. “Earlier,” Barbara explained, “it was physically demanding, but it didn’t eat away at my psyche. Condensing those feelings on the page felt like a feat.”

Candor is vital onstage, but it can be a tough sell at home, because it’s easy to believe the play is ripped straight from Barbara’s journals. The script’s parent-child relationships are composites of “many teens and parents I’ve witnessed, talked to, read about, or imagined,” she said. “It’s common for people to assume it’s autobiographical, but like all artists, I put my work on display and hope for the best.”

As she added poems and scenes from the daughter’s perspective, she started to generalize the script’s mother. Barbara began to see the major mistakes that many mothers were making “in obsessing over their own feelings when they need to listen better and recognize that their children have valid reasons behind their actions. Early on, I realized it’s an act of hubris to only give the mother’s point of view. When I started listening to the daughters’ voices, it was a leap into a parallel world where I could explore the daughters’ perspective and their hardships and range of feelings,” she said. 

With her poetry book morphing, she took it to Jody Hovland, artistic director at Riverside Theatre in Iowa City. This professional theater company has a solid track record of commissioning new work (three this season) and the two women had been acquainted for years, so Barbara shared her series of poems and monologues to ask, “Could this be reshaped for the stage?”

A great fan of Barbara’s “heart-wrenching” poetry, Jody became Barbara’s cheerleader. She encouraged Barbara to finish it and invited her to perform her monologue “Scenes from a Wading Pool” in Walking the Wire, Riverside’s annual showcase.  That led to a script-in-hand reading that finally brought these characters off the page. Positive audience reaction gave enough momentum that Barbara and Jody collaborated on a $10,000 National Endowment of the Arts grant, which provided funds for writing another draft and a full-scale production.

One interesting evolution for Barbara during this process has been seeing her work performed. “Poets rarely watch anyone read our work,” she said. “It’s exhilarating to watch an actor get it—absorb and embody the words as I meant them. One actor became totally snakelike as Medusa, just sitting in the chair. But watching them also instilled a need for objectivity when the actors performed it very differently than I’d imagined.”

Although the core substance hasn’t changed through three drafts, the playwright, director Mary Sullivan, and the other Riverside muses continue workshopping the script toward dramatic excellence. “I’m glad that Riverside is the first to do it, because I trust them and know it will be a vigorous production,” Barbara said.

Hitting Home

That respect seems to be returned by the cast, as well. Cornell sophomore Laura Tatar, playing 14-year-old Maddie, was so moved when she first read the script that she called her mother to apologize for the stormier moments in her own adolescence. At a preliminary script reading, an audience member said Raising Medusa allowed her to see how her mother must have suffered—uncertainty, anxiety, and anger—which the daughter couldn’t perceive during the conflict. LA actress Nancy Youngblut, who is spending six weeks apart from her almost 12-year-old daughter to originate the role of Mother, said the girl recently threw a fit “that would make Medusa’s snakes look like earthworms.” So, from both mother and daughter perspectives, these actors understand the drama of clawing their way to emotional independence over the corpse of their mother’s adoration.

How did Barbara’s eldest daughter respond to the intense family confrontations in the script? “When it became certain that my play really would be performed, Grace was in high school and had started to have her own artwork publically displayed. She’d understood that allowing others to interpret and judge your art is part of the process.”

Part of Barbara’s hope for Raising Medusa is to give parents credit for continuing to hang in there when the primary message they hear from their pre-teens is “don’t touch me,” “don’t tell me what to do,” and “you’re an idiot.” On top of that, Barbara said, “Society is very blaming of parents when their children make bad choices.” Likewise, in the script, during Mother’s first visit to a family psychologist, another mother comments, “This is about the only place you can drop your guard, admit your darling Greg or Greta isn’t headed for Harvard.”

So the play reassures parents that eventually the kids do become sane again. Barbara feels our society needs a rite of passage to mark the metamorphosis from child to teen. Maybe Raising Medusa could be that work of literature that’s required viewing for parents and children in the throes of the struggle.

“Even after the fact, five years later, if they come see it together it might help them heal the old wounds,” Barbara said. As part of the community outreach included in the NEA grant, Barbara is visiting high schools and youth groups, witnessing skits and art that depicts their own rocky transformations. Riverside’s lobby will display Medusa-inspired self-portraits by Mt. Vernon teenagers as well.

For tickets to Raising Medusa, April 2-19, 2009, call the Riverside Theatre box office at (319) 338-7672 or visit www.riversidetheatre.org.