The story of Waitress is a familiar one: a marriage of convenience, a woman who doesn’t want to get pregnant, an affair with the gynaecologist, and finally a choice: baby or husband. But wow, what a choice.
The lead Jenna (played at that time by the wonderful Sara Bareilles) is, on paper, an average waitress at an average diner trapped in a painfully loveless and low-key abusive marriage.
Pie making for her is both nostalgia and prospect. It pulls her back into a time when her mother was still there to guide her through pie making, and then pushes her forward to aspire for more. Pies don’t just make Jenna a living, but narrate her life, with flavour and quality waxing and waning, carefully calibrating yet wildly spectacular according to her moods and fancies. There are pies named after moods, situations, predicaments (most memorable was the banged-up pie). But misfortune aside, Pie making is overall a prospect, the grand tale of the what ifs; but it could very soon become much more than a dream if Jenna is given the right conditions to excel. The ‘right condition’ seems to arrive with a pie making contest that careens around the corner, and she knows, can feel, that this might just be what her life has been setting her up for. Such is the power of pies.
Jenna’s loveless husband Earl sets up a different question; that is, whether commitment is worth being upheld for the sake of it. Being in an abusive relationship, Earl constantly demands money from Jenna to keep up his life of vice. It’s the kind of abuse that you can’t rise above by simply belting out “Gravity”, so what Sara does is that she does (I say Sara instead of Jenna for good reason) the most beautiful and soul churning rendition of “She used to be mine” while half baked from stage pregnancy and sitting on a dirty couch she uses to hide money from her husband. This has the entire row in front of me crying (and not just wipe-a-tear-from-the-side-of-your-cheek-crying but all out bawling). “Leave him” seems to be an acute summary of what the other waitresses tell her, and I can tell that the audience seems to want this as well, the buzz of a pre-riot crowd is always there when Earl is there. And yet she can’t. Earl is obligation personified, something you invest in for years and so holds you hostage for years to come. Something you cannot just quit under normal circumstances, under the monotonous gaze of living. But Jenna is about to have a baby and these are not normal circumstances. The story has a spark.
Dr Pomatter enters as Jenna’s gynaecologist and I die a little because he’s played by Jason Mraz. I am still trying to think of a better actor for the role (there are probably many) but Jason brings a feeling onto stage that is a dollop of happy go lucky with a tinge of outright complexity behind those blue eyes.
He speaks with smooth clarity, the kind you hear in his songs and then before you know it (and no one is surprised), the pies that Jenna brings for Dr. Pomatter has him thinking about Jenna all day. And Dr. Pomatter is an avid health freak as well, having never eaten pies for ten years or something to that effect. The moment he eats a pie for someone (in this case our ever growing Jenna) is when a spell is broken. He falls for her. Or actually on her, when the door is locked. And they go at it like teenagers, breaching all protocols both professionally biologically and what not. Dr. Pomatter presents Jenna a choice. Continue with infidelity, or stop. She continues not purely out of lust, I suspect, but because the choice to continue in the throes of passion wasn’t a choice granted to her for as long as she can remember. Their passion on stage isn’t merely a cheeseball cheating session but a way for Jenna to say that she has lived beyond the claustrophobic walls of Earl and the incoming baby .
The character that almost doesn’t get any credit for me is the baby. The baby is largely a concept through the play, becoming a bump and then a plastic doll (I don’t think it’s legal to use a real baby for plays) when she is finally born. As something that spends most of her time as an idea, there’s pretty strong Juno-esque feelings of hate turning into slowly-nurtured love. It is right at the start when Earl finds out about her pregnancy that she asks Jenna: who are you going to love more, me or the baby? And Jena reluctantly replies: You. But then gravity sets in. Life grows within. There is the pie contest that cannot be entered if her savings are used on a crib. Yet there is Earl who doesn’t get any less abusive in a time when she needs him the most. Pommater continues to be her gynaecologist through it all, inspecting her before eating her pies.
The baby is at the centre of it all, and urgency grows as she grows. And then with childbirth comes clarity. The waxing and waning welcomes another life to this earth that emerges slowly, then all at once. It is the kind of clarity that renders a spoiler alert necessary at the start of this article which I have not done. But all I can say is, with childbirth comes a reorganisation of priority: sentiments are split over many issues: Me or him? Baby or self? Stay or go? Give up or fight on?
Crib or pie contest? Which dreams to you withhold for the realisation of others?
I was out of words at the end, the way people probably feel after a stellar massage or when news that their loved ones are safe comes through the line. That’s the kind of being that Waitress casts you into. Forget about emotions, think a mosaic of those emotions forming a larger pattern and perhaps you’ll know what I mean.
The play succeeds due to the many elements of it coming together swimmingly at the end, as if all heading down a single stream of newfound consciousness. We have this consciousness with the creation of life, steaming, crying life in the hands of Jenna. Any play that can arrive at a singularity without seeming contrived has done its job, giving the audience a soft place to land, rest their heads, weep, and then ultimately: feel a bit better.