British playwright Kate McGovern has said that the plot of Blue Before Morning was inspired by a taxi ride from New York to Philadelphia, but the road trip in her own play pushes the boundaries of both geography and credibility. A young woman, Ava (Kether Donohue), hails a cab in New York City and urges the driver, Jerry (Chris McKinney), to take her to Port Authority. Missing her bus, she then badgers him to take her to Columbia, S.C., claiming it’s urgent but explaining nothing. You might think her evasiveness would send up more red flags than a May Day parade in Moscow—stories of cabbies being murdered are more common than those of long-distance jaunts—but it doesn’t. In New Jersey they rescue a pregnant woman, Ella (Jenny Maguire), from a downpour, and the three share the cab. Now, New York to Philly is a ride that’s plausible, but the idea of a cab excursion that goes beyond the Mason-Dixon line also goes beyond belief. The improbability of a cabbie driving his taxi to South Carolina with two strange, often abrasive women—and for no money—remains a 500-pound gorilla in the back seat, as it were.
To be fair, Jerry has reasons for succumbing to Ava’s pleas, but they aren’t revealed until too late in the play to dispel skepticism. As the trip progresses, each traveler summons recollections of a relationship in scenes that take place outside the replica of a car interior that, with an upstage wall of gray suitcases stacked like concrete blocks, constitutes the set.
Ava’s relationship involves her mother, Eileen, a former drug addict who gave her up for rearing by Ava’s grandmother, who has died. Now back with her mother in the flashbacks, Ava is deeply embittered. She resists every heartfelt attempt by Jennifer Dorr White’s contrite Eileen to connect, and she flees for college in New York City.
The pregnant and lubricious Ella, meanwhile, is on the run from her boyfriend Steve, who is given a lackadaisical dependability in Flaco Navaja’s winning performance. However, Ella has no bent for nurturing.
Jerry’s story includes a wife, Rita, whom he met while studying to become a teacher. Rita is initially impressed by Jerry’s commitment to teaching, but after she becomes pregnant unexpectedly she too balks at mothering. “I can’t have a baby right now,” she tells him, claiming it’s too soon in their relationship. But, she adds, “I can’t not have it.” It’s no reflection on the excellent Phyllis Johnson that Rita, presented initially as elegant and composed, loses credibility as the character’s objectives change. She worries about Jerry’s income after he decides he can’t afford to continue school with a baby coming. When she walks out, she tells him: “You could be one of those executives you take to work! You could be going up into those high-rise buildings instead of waiting curbside in front of them.” What happened to the woman who was impressed with his career goal of teaching? Did she not know what teachers are paid? The transformation in the character feels arbitrary.
Faced with characters sitting much of the time and an inevitably talky script, director Gia Forakis supplies mimed food breaks, as they get out and stretch, accompanied by projections of dawn and dusk and a digital clock ticking off seconds (thanks to S. Katy Tucker). Nonetheless, the play can’t escape feeling static.
Jerry tells Ava at one point, “Mothers are born. Fathers have to be made.” It’s an ironic and foolishly romantic statement, given the play’s action. The women here are often whining harpies, and sympathy falls to the men, in spite of some feminist digs at them. (As Ella and Ava observe two flies copulating, Ella says, “It’s a straight-up business transaction.” And Ava adds, “They’re finished. And he doesn’t hold her at all. Just flies off.”)
In fact, it’s Jerry and Steve who accept parental responsibility in the play, while the women lack dependability and behave selfishly (apart from the reformed Eileen). McGovern may be saying that some women aren't prepared to be mothers (or loving spouses), and that may be true. But if she has a solution to the problem, it’s not readily apparent.