It takes a village — and sometimes an unconventional one — to raise a child. That seems to be the main thesis of My Real Mother, based on the book Open: An Adoption Story in Three Voices, which tells the story of an open adoption through the threefold lens of a birth mother Alaina (Elena Shaddow), an adoptive mother Alex (Katie LaMark), and a child Sara (Rachel Hirschfeld). Directed by Misti B. Wills, it’s a sweet story, narrated by the daughter at the center of it all, who omnisciently chronicles the emotionally fraught events with a carefree swagger and innocent smile. But that saccharine shine belies the musical’s objective to paint a true picture of the complicated but beautiful mess that the adoption process can be.
Riley Thomas pens the book, music, and lyrics with more sentiment than nuance (and not many melodies), broadly painting the steps that got this modern family to where it ended up. Alaina is twice married with three children when she meets and marries Jason (Kevin Schuering). Alaina being too old to conceive anymore (Alaina and Jason’s substantial age difference is referenced but never explicitly stated), the couple decide they should adopt to complete their family circle.
Cut to Alex, a young woman who’s no stranger to tragedy or toxic relationships. After her boyfriend, Duncan (Ryan Morales), compels her to abort one accidental pregnancy, she forces a second pregnancy (a callous move that shouldn’t leave her sympathetic protagonist status so squeaky clean) and decides she’s going to raise this one with or without Duncan’s help. Of course, life steps in, eventually leading her to the door of an adoption agency where she meets Alaina and Jason — the perfect, and possibly divinely chosen, parents for her child.
From there, the struggle becomes the complicated calculus of just how open an open adoption should be. Will a second mother figure confuse baby Sara, as Jason staunchly believes, or, as Alaina argues, is more love always better? Shaddow is a warm, maternal presence as Alaina (and as always it’s a treat to hear her sing) and builds a tender and compelling bond with Alex (played openheartedly by LaMark), who essentially becomes another daughter. Yet, the wholehearted love of a child does not a saint make, and as the story is currently shaped, Alaina and Alex’s flaws are smoothed over with a gloss of maternal affection that heals all ills and rights all wrongs.
Except, of course, it doesn’t do either of those things. If My Real Mother aims to be a story that shines an authentic light on this uniquely complex experience, it would be well served to bring back some of the unflattering cracks it’s meticulously covered up in its female leads. Sure, anger and resentment are less than heartwarming, but in a real family, they’re the truest sign of love.
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