February 10, 2015
Wednesday night, I witnessed one of the most powerful performances of my life, one so awe-inspiring that all I could say at its culmination, mouth agape, was, “wow.” Madeline Burrows’ impassioned, go-for-broke appearance in the one-woman-show Mom Baby God (which she also wrote) is by all accounts a triumph — the acting equivalent of a high-wire act on stilts. The tale of a young girl in the pro-choice movement is in equal measure laugh-worthy, socially savvy and absolutely heartbreaking. The play is a robust argument against the indoctrination of young people into the poisonous politics of the pro-life movement, one that takes place from the very perspective of anti-abortionists.
The show began before the audience even entered the Events Barn. Burrows floated around the foyer in-character as a pro-life advocate, passing out “pro-life” cupcakes. She reminded the group of people I was standing with that the cupcakes weren’t “vagan.” “Vagan?” I asked her. “I don’t know if you observe,” she said innocently, twisting her face into a smile. It is these precise details that allow Burrows to bring her characters to life, for she presents the pro-life advocates as less demonic and more misguided and unknowing. A pre-show attempt to rally the crowd in a pro-life chant garnered nervous laughter and an understandable mix of hushed silence and lifeless responses.
The play revolves around the character of Jessica Beth Giffords—a self-proclaimed, formerly home-schooled “pro-life teen” with a video blog to prove it. As Giffords, Burrows bounds across the stage as if on a permanent sugar high. She is also naïve, awkward and gangly as if she is unsure how to control her limbs – in other words, she is a teenager. Giffords also has natural urges that her pro-life mother and reverend father have instructed her to suppress. The most uproarious moments in the play are when Giffords’ camera is turned off and the audience can hear her secret thoughts spin out into the void. “I wonder what balls look like,” she thinks to herself, chortling inside, as a pro-life football coach/doctor named Dr. Dwayne gives a lecture on abstinence.
The first time Burrows transitions into a different character (usually with a snap of her neck), it is definitely disconcerting. After a few character switches, however, one forgets that she is the only one onstage. The characters each take on a life of their own, for she imbues each performance with its own unique voice and tics. For example, pro-life superstar Lila Rose flips her hair. John Paul, the pro-life Christian singer-songwriter, strikes the audience as a two-bit Justin Bieber (Bieber is ironically Giffords’ celebrity crush) with his mix of annoying slang terms and casual douchebag behavior.
Burrows uses the tools of the pro-choice movement against them in segments that play as absurdity, but for all the audience knows could be culled from real-life. A pro-life chant set to “Wonderwall” made me wonder if I can ever listen to the song again without squirming.
The show’s climax sees Giffords rise on the euphoria of her first sexual experience only to crash to Earth due to the corrosive politics of her upbringing. She finds herself with her hand down John Paul’s pants, giggling how his penis resembles a “slimy alien,” only to see his glittering purity ring. To watch the scene of the switch, and to see the young girl panic as she remembers the ideas that have been force-fed to her by the pro-life movement, is a moment of high tragedy. Burrows-as-Giffords is frantic, with lopsided hair and welling eyes that are black at the edges with mascara. The guilt follows her like a tiny monster to a pro-life rally, where the world around her erupts into a cacophony that overtakes her. The duress of the moment, the demands by her father and mother that she “stop the murder of babies,” feed the scream that Giffords has locked within her. Her parents, and other members of her community, are so focused on protecting unborn children that they don’t recognize how their policies of abstinence-only are wreaking havoc on their pubescent daughter.
The real Burrows, as revealed in the post-show Q & A, peppers her speech with f-bombs and morsels of brutal honesty. To observe the strength of Burrows’ resolve, and her commitment to the pro-choice movement, was truly inspiring.