"Children consume our lives and then they destroy them."
-- Michael, in "God of Carnage"
Six nights a week, actor Jennifer Blagen hears that scalding commentary spoken by her stage husband in Yasmina Reza's fierce little play about parents fighting about their kids fighting.
Once the lights dim and she wipes off her makeup, Blagen leaves the Guthrie Theater and heads home to her four children, understanding -- as only a parent can -- how true those words are.
"I felt subsumed by my family," said Blagen, who this summer is enjoying something of a rebirth in her long stage career.
Blagen never left the scene entirely, but "God of Carnage" marks the juiciest role she's had at the Guthrie -- or any other theater -- in many years.
With her oldest child nearly 15 and her baby ready to enter kindergarten this fall, Blagen finds the moment pregnant with opportunity -- rediscovering the world outside domesticity.
"[This show] has been a gift in every way, a different experience," she said.
However, and this is important to note: None of her comments should suggest that Blagen is a walking billboard for the perils of parenthood ("Ladies, don't do what I did"). Over coffee and chai this week, she spoke of this idea of children destroying lives with the embracing glee that only a parent of four can appreciate. Only in destruction's messy rubble could she create something greater than herself -- a family.
"I wanted to be part of my kids' lives," she said. "I remember [fellow actor/mom] Sally Wingert telling me once that your children have to be primary, they have to be your priority. I love being a parent."
Blagen grew up in southwest Minneapolis and got into theater early. In high school, she spent two years acting at Chanhassen Dinner Theatre, and after graduating from the University of Minnesota, she earned an MFA from the National Theatre Conservatory in Denver.
She has worked with Children's Theatre Company, the Guthrie, Eye of the Storm, Ten Thousand Things, the Jungle and Actors Theater of Minnesota, among others, in the past 20 years. She and her husband, Peter Lawton (they recently divorced), had their first child 15 years ago.
"I thought I wanted to be done at one, but after the second, I wanted to have another, and then another," she said, explaining that she likes the society that children create within the family: distinct personalities, shifting alliances and rivalries, "Lord of the Flies" mayhem and the constant discovery of childhood.
Her favorite story the other day was about her 10-year-old, who announced that he wanted to start a lemonade stand. Feeling she had to manage this project, Blagen whined a bit that she didn't have the time. Son quickly apprised mother that this wasn't about her. He was going to hire neighbor kids to hawk on the street. He made $28 the first day and $32 the next.
Even while raising her children, Blagen indulged her taste for theater. In 2000, she was eight months pregnant when she did publicity photos for "Stop Kiss" at Eye of the Storm. In 2003, she brought her 7-week-old third child along with her for "Pride and Prejudice," hiring a baby sitter to stay in the Green Room. "Carnage" is mercifully short, so she needs to spend only three hours away each night. Because it's summertime, the 15-year-old gets an opportunity to make $5 an hour and rule the roost while mother is at work.
Blagen is far from alone as an actor/mom. Wingert has achieved empty-nest status, as has Barbara Kingsley. Angela Timberman has balanced kids and stage for several years. So has Michelle O'Neill and relative newcomers Jen Peden and Christina Baldwin. Stacia Rice and Maggie Chestovich joined the club this year.
Reflections of ourselves
Blagen, in her enthusiasm, has recommitted to the theater. Although she has worked once or twice a year onstage, and taken frequent understudy roles, she'd like to take it up a notch.
"I haven't really marketed myself in 10 years," she said. "I got sidetracked raising kids, but now my family is in a good place and everything feels new again."
If one chooses to believe in fate or synchronicity, "Carnage" would appear to be the perfect vehicle for this renaissance. Reza puts ordinary parents into an extraordinary domestic experience and lets them stumble and fumble through it.
"These people are just people and facing parts of themselves that are not pretty," she said. "In a way, the adults devolve to their children's level and the discussion becomes a playground free-for-all."
Blagen considers it an essential point of self-discovery: that you get to know yourself when another person reflects you. Just as those four little mirrors around the house constantly remind you who you are.