Mother-Daughter Relationships Take Center Court in Our Very Own Carlin McCullough

In Amanda Peet’s play, the daughter may be a sports phenom, but the mother is out of her league.

Joe Tippett and Mamie Gummer star in the world premiere of Amanda Peet's Our Very Own Carlin McCullough at the Geffen Playhouse.
Joe Tippett and Mamie Gummer star in the world premiere of Amanda Peet's Our Very Own Carlin McCullough at the Geffen Playhouse.
(© Chris Whitaker)

Parenting is a daunting task, one that comes with no rule book. Even when a parent, particularly a single one, desires the absolute best for a child, it's possible to steer a kid off course. Cyn (Mamie Gummer), the harried mom raising a tennis prodigy daughter, finds herself at a crossroads in Amanda Peet's provocative play Our Very Own Carlin McCullough, which hits the courts at the Geffen Playhouse for its world premiere.

Jay (Joe Tippett) discovers 10-year-old Carlin (Abigail Dylan Harrison) at the public tennis courts and recognizes her innate talent. He coaches the child practically for free while navigating the whims of her mother (Gummer), who both lusts after and fears this new influence in her daughter's life. As Carlin wins more matches, she draws attention from other coaches, including Salif (Tyee Tilghman), a scout for Stanford University. Salif believes a structured academy program will allow Carlin to go pro. Jay warns Cyn that Carlin's instincts, which make her so special as a player and a human being, will be stamped out by the school's practices. Forced to decide the direction of her daughter's future, Cyn buckles under the pressure. Even with the best intentions, can any parent always know what is right for his or her child?

Peet, also a renowned actor, has written a thought-provoking piece with no villains, just vulnerable people searching for their own ways. She has a sound ear for dialogue and has colored in the characters through their conversations and confrontations. Peet gives the audience as much information as the characters are granted, never clarifying the right paths, giving the audience the opportunity to wonder how they would handle such a challenging situation.

The cast is phenomenal, with actors shading their characters with compassion and confusion. Gummer plays Cyn as a struggling, lonely woman who uses alcohol as a crutch. Her frustration of feeling ineffectual in protecting her daughter's future makes her heartbreaking. Tippett is fatherly as the coach who ignores the standard rules. There is always a question mark over his head of whether his love for the girl crosses lines, though Tippett makes it obvious in his performance that he is in awe of the girl's talent.

Harrison is a natural as the younger version of Carlin. Never cloying, she connects with both costars and projects the heart of an adolescent. Caroline Heffernan, who plays Carlin in the second act, infuses the character with tragic longing and regret at lost opportunities. Where a lesser actor could have made the character maudlin, Heffernan treats Carlin's disappointments with a maturity that makes it even more poignant. As the fellow coach, Tilghman functions as the earnest Greek chorus, planting seeds in Cyn's head.

Director Tyne Rafaeli relies on subtext, refusing to spell out the characters' intentions, and allowing the audience to infer motivations. Tim Mackabee's set seamlessly flows from the courts, to Cyn and Carlin's dowdy apartment, to a string of tacky motel rooms. Lap Chi Chu lights every motel room diversely, so the audience recognizes the monotony of different drab rooms, leading nowhere.

Our Very Own Carlin McCullough maps out all the character's impetuses so that the story line travels in unexpected directions that always feel truthful. This is one match you won't want to miss.