Girls, contain yourselves. Men, try not to barf. The premise of Goldie, Max, and Milk is thus: A newly single lesbian has just given birth to a baby girl and can't lactate. To help, she retains the services of a Jewish Orthodox lactation consultant. Worldviews clash! The women embark upon a journey of understanding, tolerance, and discovery! (Why must bile have a vaguely sweet aftertaste?)
There is nothing about the show's plot or theme to suggest that Goldie, Max, and Milk offers anything not more available for less money in an average Lifetime Original Movie. Certainly no synopsis could adequately preview playwright Karen Hartman's wicked gift for language, nor how exuberantly director Margaret Ledford and the cast of Florida Stage take up that language and make it sing.
Take, for example, the moment during Max's first consultation when Goldie, in response to some impertinent question, says: "My husband is a holy combatant for the chosen people." "I don't believe in God," says Max. Goldie's rapid retort: "I don't believe in single homosexual parenthood, yet you exist." Actress Deborah Sherman has disappeared entirely into the role of Goldie — she's almost unrecognizable — and in her mouth, the words become a throwaway line, their casual delivery letting us know just how concerned she is about Max's theological views, which isn't much. In a more subtle way, she's also letting us know how little regard she has for her own social conservatism. She may not approve of homosexuality, but she also knows her prejudices don't matter. Babies matter, and Max's needs milk.
How nice it is to see a play treat a homophobe as something other than a caricature — a play big-hearted enough to understand that our prejudices do not necessarily define us and that even those whose thought crimes are especially unfashionable may still have something to teach. Max is a pioneer, a seeker of new truths — when she and her partner, Lisa (Carla Harting), were still together, they would hike for days through the wilderness in the immensity of the Northwest. And they were pioneers even in Brooklyn, charting new ways of being a family. Now Max is exploring alone. Goldie's lot is less glamorous but no less vital: She is a keeper of a flame, a dogged guardian of old truths. She asks: "Don't you think there might be a reason people do things the normal way?" Doing things the "normal" way is usually a safe bet, whatever compromises may be required. "I don't like that word," says Max, meaning normal. "Good!" cries Goldie: "Because nobody's ever going to use it about your girl!" ("Do us all a favor," says Goldie upon hearing the child's name, "and don't make this baby a spokesperson for your marginal beliefs." The child's name is Lakshmi Rose.)
Erin Joy Schmidt has blown every theater-loving Floridian's mind and touched every theater-loving Floridian's heart on innumerable occasions in the past decade, but she's an idiosyncratic actress. Her supreme gift is in communicating angst, and her performances are full of jittering nerves. She enlivens otherwise dull characters by amping up their energy levels and intelligence and underlining their exasperation and vulnerabilities. In Max, she has been given a character that perfectly matches her own dramatic tendencies. In the play's opening scene, she's gleefully insane: alone in her crumbling Brooklyn apartment, fresh from her cesarean, overcome with joy and pain. Every movement hurts. "Fuuuuuhuhuhuhuck!" she cries when wracked by fresh agony, the voice beginning down low and climbing to a ululating head-voice. This one word is a little miracle of microdrama. Max's pain is real, but its expression is affected; she is dramatizing it to amuse herself. She is very alone.
The father of Max's child is Mike, her departed girlfriend's 24-year-old, drug-dealing baby brother, played with game understatement by wünderkind David Hemphill. He enters presently, and there is some tension — he is a reminder of Lisa's betrayal. But he has brought a car seat for little Lakshmi, and he is friendly: When Mike gets his first look at the baby, the sniping stops. "Wow," says Mike. "Right?!" says Max, suddenly grinning. "Nice work," says Mike. "Nice work," says Max. They shake hands. They bump fists. A moment later, Schmidt gets off a fabulous line when Mike comments upon the awkwardness of watching Max try to breastfeed. "I am holding a human being in my arms, feeding a human being from my body," she says. " 'Awkward' is a town I've left behind."
The way Hartman's smart-crazy dialogue is negotiated by Schmidt, Sherman, Hemphill, and the diminutive comic dynamo Sarah Lord — who plays Goldie's prickly, precocious daughter, Shayna — elicits a constant low roar of happy laughter from the audience, the eruption of which does not abate till a ways into the second act. By then, Lisa has become a central character, and she alone among Hartman's creations is not entirely sympathetic. She has discovered the error of her ways, she says, and wants to make amends, but actress Carla Harting makes her seem less than sincere — she is a little too calculating to have for so long elicited Max's affections. Alas, this inconsistency is probably inherent in the script: Lisa is written like an especially disarming sociopath.
The drama of the second act is driven by an unlikely suicide attempt and an even unlikelier kidnapping, neither of which would be a problem if the former didn't result in a long, needlessly preachy hospital scene that soaks up much of the play's momentum. Goldie, Max, and Milk would be very close to perfection if only that scene were trimmed, segueing more smoothly into the lovely coda set in Max's apartment (which, thanks to the ingenuity of set designer Timothy R. Mackabee, has been delightfully remodeled in its few minutes offstage). Goldie, Max, and Milk doesn't need preaching. When it relies on the warmth and strength of its characters, they say all that needs saying. Near the middle of the play, the young, Orthodox Shayna, covered head to toe in atavistic black garb, asks Max: "How can you be happy with all that you lack?" — meaning family, community, tradition, certainty, God. Max replies: "How can you be happy without R-rated movies or pants?" "I'm not happy!" cries Shayna, as though it should be obvious.
And it is. The point of Goldie, Max, and Milk isn't that the liberal atheists or the tradition-cleaving conservatives have all the answers. It's that the answers won't mean anything if we can't talk to each other. Creating a new world is hard, and the Maxes will need all the help they can get.