Playwright Molly Smith Metzler was seven months pregnant when she moved with her husband to Long Island in the summer of 2012. She was struck by her new seaside home — a socioeconomic melting pot where working-class families in rental units lived below posh cliffside mansions owned by New York’s glitterati — and right away, she knew: She had to write about this place.
Then her daughter, Cora, was born, and her husband returned to work, and Metzler found herself spending long days alone at home — without a car, without a job and without a social circle, as a bitterly cold winter settled over the island. And the story brewing inside her began to change.
“My plays are always about class, so that much was clear,” she says. “What I didn’t know, before Cora was born, was how much I was going to have to say about motherhood.”
That defining period of her life became the inspiration for “Cry It Out,” Metzler’s poignant comedy about three women and one man fumbling their way through the fog of new parenthood in the frigid coastal hamlet of Port Washington on Long Island’s north shore. The play made its area debut at Studio Theatre this week.
“As a playwright, our job is to find moments of incredible drama in people’s lives and then put them onstage,” Metzler says. “And I can tell you for a fact that the most dramatic moment of my life was when I had to leave my daughter and go back to work.”
Before she had Cora, Metzler says, there were certain questions she couldn’t have fully fathomed: when to work again, whether to work again, how to balance a career with a child, and how a family’s financial status affects absolutely everything about those choices.
“I looked into my options in Port Washington for child care, and the option that I could afford was to leave her in a basement apartment with six other babies who were in carseats, and I said, ‘No, I’m not doing this, I’d rather eat ramen,’ ” she says. “It was very eye-opening for me that one mile away was the most dreamy day-care situation you could ever imagine, that cost $45,000 a year. And the people who lived above me on the cliff could take their children there. How did no one warn me that this was going to rip my heart out of my chest?”
Metzler ultimately returned to work full-time when her daughter was a toddler, and her career soon took off. Her plays have been produced off-Broadway and in theaters across the country, and she has also written for television, including Hulu’s “Casual,” Showtime’s “Shameless” and “Orange Is the New Black” on Netflix.
As Metzler’s work grew more demanding, she says, she often struggled with juggling her profession and her parenting. So “Cry It Out” still resonates deeply, to the point that Metzler can’t quite bring herself to sit through the final scene, when the main character makes a tough decision.
“I’m always very reluctant to put myself in a play, but in ‘Cry It Out,’ I am all four of these characters,” she says. “They’re all me, but they’re also all of the parents I came to know very well.”
Before there was a play, there was a journal.
“I had no friends, no job, no nothing, and I had a newborn, and I had to figure out postpartum life completely alone,” Metzler recalls. “What I did do was write everything down. And I mean everything.”
Her writing chronicled both the aching isolation of being home with an infant, no car and a tight budget, and the salvation that came when Metzler ultimately made a friend — another new mom who offered commiseration and a sense of belonging.
“She saved my life,” Metzler says. “She got me out, she introduced me to the things in that community that were free that I could enjoy, like story time at the library, or we’d go to the YMCA and let the babies watch basketball. There was a church playgroup that you could go to for one dollar.”
They made a lasting bond, and Metzler says she thinks of her friend every time she watches their story play out onstage.
“I always text her afterward and tell her I love her,” she says.
At the heart of the play is a looming, impossible question: What is the right choice, the right balance between self and sacrifice — for a parent, a child, a family?
But don’t expect a tidy resolution on Metzler’s stage.
“What are parents supposed to do? I felt I couldn’t answer that question, because I don’t have the answer. No one does,” she says. “But I feel like what’s exciting is that people come out of the play talking about this. And if people leave the theater with empathy, I think that’s really exciting.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story said that “Cry It Out” had its debut at Studio Theatre. This is the play’s area debut; it has been produced in other cities.
Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW. 202-332-3300. studiotheatre.org.
Dates: Through Dec. 16.