The birth and care of a newborn baby is usually depicted in plays and movies as a blessed event. But Miami-based playwright Gina Montet knows that is not always the case.
So, after researching the subject and having children of her own, she wrote Overactive Letdown, a look at the dark side of childbirth. An audience favorite at the 2020 New Play Festival of Florida Atlantic University’s Theatre Lab, the work will receive its world premiere from the Boca Raton company March 26.
Montet says the play is not autobiographical, “but it was inspired by my first experience into motherhood, and just kind of realizing that your expectations and reality are not always the same.” In between writing plays, Montet found the time to have and raise three boys and, fortunately, her experiences are nothing like those of Overactive Letdown’s Christine, an intelligent movie buff mom with a supportive professor husband, Mark, but whose first journey into parenting left her exhausted, depressed and more than a little paranoid.
“Learning about it, understanding post-partum depression, anxiety and psychosis, I realized that nobody was talking about it,” Montet says. “Nobody had shared with me their difficulties in motherhood, where there were false expectations of nothing but perfection. And when things aren’t perfect, that disappointment that you feel can be very real.”
So Montet wrote Christine’s experience as a worst-case scenario, but with the message that such mental illness — for that is what the condition is, the playwright insists — is usually temporary and completely treatable. “And with this play, what I hope to do is increase that awareness, to have those discussions,” explains Montet.
Admitting to being overwhelmed by new motherhood is an important step towards solving the problem, says the production’s director, Margaret Ledford.
“Because there’s so much societal pressure — for the marriage to be fine, for the mom to be fine. The expectation is that it is only overwhelming joy, that you should be happy. So for a woman to admit that she’s not, goes against the grain of everything else.”
In addition to the research she did on childbirth, Montet says “a lot of what’s in this play happened to people that I know. Little moments of perceived failure that my friends had going through motherhood. Friends that had emergency C-sections, like I had. Or had had trouble breast-feeding. Friends that had experienced depression.”
Ledford had long discussed with Montet collaborating on the development of Overactive Letdown. “I was blown away by the concept of it. She had talked to me many years ago about this piece as a short,” says Ledford. “And then when she developed it into a full-length, I loved it. The dialogue is so accessible, the characters are absolutely lovable and you feel for them. You go on this scary ride that you want it to stop and it just doesn’t.”
The play’s title, by the way, comes from the jargon of childbirth that refers to the forceful ejection of milk from the mother during breastfeeding. When Montet came upon the term as she was writing a scene where Christine is visited by a lactation coach, she recognized it as an apt description for Christine’s entire condition.
From Ledford’s first involvement with the play, a workshop reading at Florida International University in 2019, she knew she wanted Lindsey Corey to play Christine because “she’s uber-talented, she’s super-likable and you root for her.”
“My first thought was, ‘Wow, what a powerful story’,” says Corey. “It’s such an up-and-down, tumultuous journey, and the character pretty much never leaves the stage. So from start to finish, that psychosis that develops, it’s such a natural progression to have such a breakdown. So I said, ‘I want to go on this horribly beautiful journey.’”
Montet knew she would have to depict Christine’s experiences as darkly dramatic, but she didn’t want that to be the play’s only tone. “I thought, ‘How am I going to tell this story without it being 90 minutes of relentless depression?’ And I started to think about how did I deal with it. I didn’t have post-partum depression, but I was certainly very lonely. I was all by myself. My husband had to work a lot to make up for the fact that I had to take time off, and I watched Netflix. I would watch Netflix over and over again.”
So she not only made Christine a Netflix addict, but she turned her hallucinations into scenes from various movie genres –- from a Jane Austen period romance to a Titanic disaster epic to a classic Western. “That was a lot of fun, too. I wrote way more of them than I could actually use,” Montet concedes. “There was the religious one, with a nun and a dowager, kind of an ‘Omen’ thing going on. There was one about a pirate, which I had to dump fairly early on. I was sad about that. I was like ‘I’m going to write a play about breast-feeding and pirates.’ There was one where they’re concocting things in a science-fiction lab doing experiments. But you have to choose the ones that propel the plot, not the ones that amuse me the most.”
Besides the Playwrights Development Program in Miami, Montet workshopped Overactive Letdown at the Playwrights Center in Minneapolis. “So when it was ready that’s when I gave it to Matt (Stabile, FAU Theatre Lab’s producing artistic director), because I thought this would be, not just an ideal environment, but that Matt and Lindsey and Margaret would be the ideal team to put my play up.”
Stabile was immediately taken with the play, calling it a “comedic thriller on an issue that is not given nearly enough attention in our society.” He put it into his 2020 New Play Festival where, as Montet recalls, “The Theatre Lab audience responded really well to it. They’re so smart, so insightful. We had a lot of really good changes that happened through that process. It was very validating. People told me they really felt the play was important, that they were so glad I was telling this story.”
“This play has a way of drawing you in,” adds Ledford. “It shows you something you didn’t think you were coming in for. The play really takes a turn. The first scene and the last scene are worlds away from each other. And I love watching an audience go on that ride.”
While you might think that the play would appeal more to women than men, Montet insists that is not the case. “No, I’ve gotten equally strong responses from both men and women. I‘ve had a lot of men come up to me and say, ‘Y’know, my wife went through this.’ And then there were men who simply enjoyed it for what it was, with no connection to it personally. And that was important to me too, that the play be entertaining.”
So Stabile slotted the play to have its first full production in March of 2021, but, of course, that season was wiped out by COVID. Still, Ledford and Corey stuck with the work, along with actor Alex Alvarez, who plays Christine’s husband Mark.
The developmental process for Overactive Letdown has been protracted, but Ledford is confident that it will have a strong impact on audiences. “I think any theater experience is about broadening your humanity. If you can raise awareness about another human being and their particular journey, then you have increased your own compassion.”
“Personally, what I take away from this play and I find comfort in, especially after the past two years that we’ve all experienced, is that we’re not alone,” says Corey. “That there are resources out there, that no matter what you’re going through, hopefully, if you reach out, someone is there.”
OVERACTIVE LETDOWN, FAU Theatre Lab, Parliament Hall, Florida Atlantic University campus. 777 Glades Road, Boca Raton. From Friday, March 26 through Sunday, April 10. $32-$40. 561-297-6124.