Theater archives

My Mother the Changeling


Like playwright Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa’s last Manhattan outing, Dark Matters
is also based on a totally true story. In 1895, a Tipperary seamstress, Bridget Cleary, briefly disappeared. Upon her return, her husband, Michael; her brothers; and her neighbors determined her to be not Bridget at all, but a fairy changeling. Over the course of a week, they beat her, half starved her, and finally burned her to death. Even today, Irish children chant the gory nursery rhyme, “Are you a witch? Are you a fairy? Are you the wife of Michael Cleary?”

Aguirre-Sacasa has picked up that tune, though he sets Dark Matters
a long way from Tipperary. In rural Virginia, Bridget Cleary (Elizabeth Marvel) suddenly vanishes, leaving her husband, Michael (Reed Birney), and teenage son (Justin Chatwin) half crazed with worry. Bridget reappears—wet, naked, shivering—a week later and relates that she’s been holidaying with aliens, not the illegal so much as the interplanetary sort. “They didn’t force me,” she explains. “I didn’t do anything I didn’t want to, it was just . . . time for me to go with them.” No great believer in the otherwordly, Michael at first doesn’t credit her story. Eventually his skepticism wanes. In fact, he suspects that his wife may not have returned at all, that a shape-shifting alien may have taken her place.

If Michael can’t resolve just who or what his wife is, Aguirre-Sacasa and director Trip Cullman, accomplished artists both, have similar difficulties with the play. Is it a piece of science fiction genre writing or a dressed-up domestic drama? Does it concern our feelings about the utterly alien or those we know and love best? Cullman and Aguirre-Sacasa never quite plump for one option or the other, nor do they achieve a fair compromise.

The deliciously spooky scene endings jar against the naturalistic emotionalism of the scenes themselves. There’s a gorgeous amount of plot (perhaps Aguirre-Sacasa’s greatest skill), but it isn’t sure what story it wants to tell. While Cullman has marshaled an excellent cast, with the exception of Michael Cullen as a gruff sheriff, the performances seem unassured. So many elements of a fine play are present, but that piece doesn’t ever emerge. Have the aliens abducted the living-room theatrics, or is it the other way around?