Arts & Culture » Calendar

In Performance: mourning becomes electric

by

comment

Even the postman cried.

Like a lot of other people that summer who had seen Susan McLaughlin Karp balloon to 204 pounds, he asked her, "Did you have the baby yet?" He burst into tears when she said, "The baby died."

Everyone--her agent, her dog walker--was "wiped out by one sentence. You feel like Godzilla walking around with this huge piece of information. It doesn't get beyond this when someone starts crying."

The experience of the stillbirth in 1997 was sad and horrifying, devastating, Karp says--but beautiful, too. She's captured the subtle, illuminating moments, and the grim and high comedy, in Still, a monologue she's performing this month at Live Bait Theater. The piece grew out of something she wrote for the memorial service for her daughter, Mary. "I wrote how I found out she had died at the doctor's appointment," she says. "What it was like pushing her out, how we held her and dressed her, and what she looked like." The do-it-yourself service was followed by what she, a nonpracticing Catholic, and her Jewish husband refer to as "the Irish shiva."

In Still, she says, "The food runs amok and overtakes the house. I walk away as party trays spread through the dining room, then the living room, the family room, until all the tables are covered with food. The doorbell rings all day long....My dad makes sure there is plenty of beer. In my Irish family whenever someone important dies we always give them a big drunk send-off the night of their wake. I am surprised that we are doing this for my daughter, though; she didn't drink. People come. Some bring food or a card, some cry and bring me stories of loss; some are afraid of me and feel shy. One woman stands in my dining room and cries, 'I brought a cranberry bread! I brought a cranberry bread!' as if fearing the small bread will get lost amid the immense trays of turkey roll ups and rugalach. She needn't fear. I will never forget her fucking cranberry bread."

"She has a very odd way of perceiving the world," says Live Bait artistic director Sharon Evans. "She's extremely detailed. What she observes isn't what other people tend to notice." Karp had performed at Live Bait during her eight years as an actress around town, and when she finished her essay she mailed it to Evans. Evans was so struck by it that she sent it to her mother, an unusual move, she says. "I wanted her to read it. It's so powerful. It's beyond intimate."

The piece moves around in time, beginning with Karp's pregnancy, then jumping to a doctor's dry report that "fetal death occurred...possibly of late placental failure." Other parts detail the kicking of the fetus, Karp feeling huge and asexual while watching people dance at a wedding, and the macabre delivery of a baby that is already dead. She writes: "Why couldn't I keep her body with me forever? I feel afraid to ask. Only a crazy woman would feel that way."

When she was in mourning, Karp went to video stores looking for movies about similar experiences. "I never identified a movie, even a Lifetime movie, about a baby dying in utero. It bugged the shit out of me." She says she found a few decent books on grief, and a lot of saccharine ones. And she found that some women were afraid to talk, while others reached out. "So many in my parents' generation wrote notes, telling me of a child they'd lost. They'd never talked about it. There was so much pain." Men--at least those over 50--didn't talk about their own losses, she says. "Men said, 'You'll have fun trying to make a new one.'"

Karp, who now has a two-year-old son, will appear as part of Live Bait's fifth annual "Fillet of Solo" festival, which runs Fridays and Saturdays, August 3 through 25, at 3914 N. Clark; Karp performs at 7 PM August 3 through 18. Tickets are $10. A festival pass good for all shows, including pieces by Mark Gagne, Paul Turner, Martie Sanders, Jim Carrane, and Quincy Wong, is $30. For reservations call 773-871-1212. See the sidebar in Section Two for more information.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Robert Drea.

Add a comment