by Hannah Rae Montgomery on March 16, 2020
At 34, Nicole Clark is successful. She’s just been promoted at her job. She’s married to a great guy, Robert, who’s thoughtful, supportive, and hot. She has a stylish haircut and a wicked sense of humor. But when Nicole’s mom, Helen, looks at her, it seems as if all she sees is her daughter’s size. Nicole is fat; she weighs more than 300 pounds. While she doesn’t think her body needs to change, to Helen (also once fat, now compulsively thin), it’s unacceptable.
When Nicole goes home for her childhood best friend’s baby shower and announces that she’s pregnant too, Helen’s reaction forces long-simmering tensions between mother and daughter to come to a boil. Frank, funny, and deeply felt, playwright/director Morgan Gould’s comedy Nicole Clark is Having a Baby explores the emotional legacies we inherit from our parents—and pass down to our kids, despite our best intentions.
Helen (Nancy Robinette) and Nicole (Nicole Spiezio) in Nicole Clark is Having a Baby.
While Nicole Clark isn’t autobiographical, Gould is a self-described fat woman, and representing fat bodies on stage is a defining feature of her work. And, like Helen, Gould’s mom lost a lot of weight later in life. Reflecting on these similarities, Gould jokes, “I was reticent to write ‘the mother play,’ because it’s so cliché.” But she had a draft of a new script due at Juilliard, where she was completing the Lila Acheson Wallace American Playwrights Program—so she had to write something. Gould was battling writer’s block when inspiration struck during a conversation with fellow playwright Ellen McLaughlin. “Ellen told me, ‘Plays about families are about the things you can’t say being said,’” Gould recalls. “So I started writing the scene in Nicole Clark where that happens.”
Amy Renna (Emily Kunkel) is based on Gould's own childhood best friend.
A multi-hyphenate artist who thinks like a director as she’s writing, Gould crafted some of the play’s characters with specific performers in mind. She named her heroine after Nicole Spiezio, a favorite collaborator who’s originating the role under Gould’s direction in the Humana Festival premiere. Speaking to her affinity for creating fat female protagonists, Gould comments, “It kind of comes from a selfish place; everyone wants to be seen. I’m no different. But also, 67% of American women are fat, and that’s not usually reflected in the characters and bodies we see on stage. Amazing fat actresses like Nicole Spiezio don’t get the opportunities that they should. So I wrote Nicole Clark to showcase her.” Meanwhile, the role of Amy Renna, Nicole’s best friend, was written for another longtime collaborator, Emily Kunkel (a new mom herself and a former acting apprentice at Actors Theatre, who’s starring in the Humana production as well). “It’s funny: Amy Renna is the name of my actual childhood best friend,” says Gould. “And then I wrote her for Emily, my college best friend.”
67% of American women are fat, and that’s not usually reflected in the characters and bodies we see on stage
For Gould, it’s significant that Nicole and Amy are navigating pregnancy alongside one another. “It shows how two women of the same generation can have really different views on motherhood,” she explains. “It also expands the play’s view of mother-daughter relationships. We get a taste of Amy’s relationship with her mom, and she’s witnessed Nicole’s relationship with Helen for years.” The difference in Helen’s responses to Amy’s and Nicole’s pregnancies is simultaneously startling and illuminating. While Helen congratulates thin, athletic Amy, Nicole’s baby news is met with outrageous skepticism about whether she’s “healthy” enough for parenthood. Helen also makes it clear— right in front of Robert—that she can’t understand how a conventionally good looking guy could be attracted to Nicole, or would want to have a child with her on purpose. Nicole Clark blends biting comedy and emotional tragedy seamlessly in moments such as these, a deft tonal balance that’s a hallmark of Gould’s writing.
Robert (DeShawn Mitchell) and Nicole (Nicole Spiezio) visiting her childhood home.
“I don’t set out to write comedies,” she reflects, “but I think a lot of good characters have trauma, and traumatized people can be really funny. It’s a way of surviving. It’s similar with my fat characters; humor’s often how fat people get through the world. We laugh because we’re protecting ourselves. Laughter can reveal a lot of truth.”
As Nicole Clark is Having a Baby came to life, Gould had an epiphany: “I wasn’t just writing about my mom. I was writing something more universal about feminism and shame, about what motherhood does to people and how it feels to be a daughter.” After all, conflict is an inevitable and highly relatable part of almost any mother-daughter bond. Ultimately, we’re able to empathize with Helen as well as Nicole; Gould portrays both women as well-meaning but with enormous blind spots, each trying in her own flawed way to connect. “There isn’t one who’s right and one who’s wrong,” Gould says. “Nicole’s problem is she thinks she’s perfect, unscathed by the patriarchy’s hatred of fat women. She comes to understand that she’s not, and finds compassion for Helen, who’s definitely not.” But can Nicole transcend her upbringing and be a different kind of parent? She swears never to impose Helen’s brand of internalized body shame on her own daughter. As to whether she’ll succeed in breaking the cycle, only time will tell.
—Hannah Rae Montgomery