Mother of Pearls

Actor/producer/writer Debra Gettleman does everything from arranging chairs to selling tickets for Pearls: Motherhood Unstrung, which she's co-produced with Mothers Who Write instructors Deborah Sussman Susser (associate editor of Jewish News of Greater Phoenix) and Amy Silverman (managing editor of this newspaper). Gettleman (who has taken Mothers Who Write more than once) came up with the Pearls concept, put together the play, and even appears in some performances of the show, which collects monologues about motherhood from MWW, a workshop for, well, mothers who write. In between emptying trash cans and wiping her own kids' noses, she considers food allergies and her Melrose Place connection.

Robrt Pela: The material from Pearls came from authors in the Mothers Who Write workshop.

Debra Gettleman: Right. I heard them do a reading at Scottsdale Center, and I approached them and said, "I think this could be a play." There was an early reading [of the play] at my house, and everyone loved it, but it was such a downer. We revamped it with more humor, and found funny pieces, and pieces about older kids, and things that were more universal —

Pela: I really hate that notion that every experience has some universality to it. Although I have to admit that the monologue about grocery shopping could have been about me. Except I've never fathered anything — trust me.

Gettleman: Well, we want everybody to be able to connect to this material. As moms, we tend to think we're the only ones having these experiences, but so much of what we experience does happen to most people.

Pela: So moms aren't special?

Gettleman: I hope that's not it. It's that we're in this together. We want mothers to know they're not the only ones who sometimes want to strangle their kids or smack the bag boy at the grocery store.

Pela: Okay. So when you turned some of the Mothers Who Write essays into a play, you were working with writers who had to experience seeing their work reinterpreted for the stage. That must have been nightmarish for some of them.

Gettleman: I think it was shocking to many of the writers. They were comfortable in a workshop situation where they owned those words and read them themselves. To see them interpreted, maybe in a way that's not how the author intended it, was difficult for some of them.

Pela: I don't know if I'd want to watch a director and actor interpreting a personal essay I'd written.

Gettleman: I was surprised, because I thought everyone understood that once you let go of your words, they're subject to the interpretations of the actor, the director, and sometimes the producer. And each of them thinks theirs is the right way to go.

Pela: I always get into trouble when I admit this, but to me, motherhood seems like a profoundly thankless job. You work your ass off for years, and by the time the kid is a teenager he hates you. Then you spend all your money to put him through college, and he moves away and you barely see him.

Gettleman: I think on some level that's absolutely true. The irony is you can't help but give your whole heart and soul to this creature whose destiny it is to break your heart. Maybe if you live long enough, you get him or her back. But if you kick off early, you're out of luck.

Pela: Speaking of luck, you were on an episode of Melrose Place!

Gettleman: Oh, God. I always get asked about that. I used to do really great theater when I lived in Chicago, and everyone would say, "When are you going to get a job?" Then I did a McDonald's commercial, and everyone was saying, "You're an actress!" I did a bunch of TV when I lived in L.A., and Melrose Place was in there somewhere. There was a character named Kimberly on the show, and she died, and I gave birth to the reincarnation of her. Please, please don't print that.

Pela: Oh, sure. Tell me this: How come kids are allergic to everything today? I went to public school for 12 years and I don't remember ever hearing anyone mention a dairy allergy.

Gettleman: I know! It's weird. And there's the whole peanut allergy thing, which is a crisis in our house because I'm not much of a cook and I used to pack peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. But now I can't send my kid to school with one because they have a peanut-free zone.

Pela: You made that up.

Gettleman: I swear to God! A peanut-free zone. Just another thing to challenge mothers with.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela