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Review: ‘Baby Screams Miracle’ at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company

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What does one say about a play that has a Superstorm as its protagonist?

With Clare Barron’s Baby Screams Miracle, now showing at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, just such a storm is nature’s supreme being.

(From left) Sarah Marshall, Kate Eastwood Norris, Caroline Rilette, Cody Nickell, and Caroline Dubberly. Photo by Scott Suchman.

And the five human beings at her mercy can do nothing but pray to Jesus. And Jesus gets his ass kicked.

Unfortunately, even when a story has a fascinating, provocative premise; a strong cast of dynamic, capable actors; a fabulous designer of a little house (James Kronzer), and (most importantly) a technology-video wizard (Jared Mezzochi), when the story isn’t there, there’s no “there” there.

And in this production, directed by Howard Shalwitz, Baby Screams Miracle suggests that there’s something more that’s agitating this family discord, but whatever that something more is, it never materializes.

We begin with Carol (Kate Eastwood Norris) and Gabe (Cody Nickell) in a prayer session. They ask Jesus to make them better people. That’s standard stuff, with Christian families all across America doing the same each evening.  Carol and Gabe, however, are different; they have a doll-sized replica of their home, inside their home, and in this home they seemingly play house.

But things are not what they seem; for, apparently, that doll-sized replica of their house might not really be there; it’s only a metaphor or a symbol or a convention. In other words, this Christian home has no doll house; only the playwright does.

And, yet, on occasion, at the beginning of the play and later, they play with that doll house.

Why?  One could argue symbolism: hearth, home, and Hestia (the goddess of the hearth without the goddess), with Carol and Gabe “playing” house. One could argue that it’s Barron’s clever theatrical convention, as the storm (the protagonist) will soon attack that house with gale force rain and wind.  But conventions work best when they remain consistent throughout. And symbols? Well, they work when the human connection to them is both visceral and real.

The bottom line is: in a play about a storm’s attack on a house, the people get lost in the wreckage. And that’s exactly what happens in this production.

A play and its production have to allow the audience an opportunity to give a damn about the characters, about the people who inhabit the home the storm attacks; and this play has so fragmented the stories of these five people that we are left with only tiny glimpses into who and what they are and why we should care.

What do we find out? Carol and Gabe have a mother, Barbara (Sarah Marshall), who lives in the house with them. She’s a home-spun woman, steady as mother’s come.

Carol and Gabe have two daughters, Cynthia (Caroline Dubberly) and Kayden (Mia Rilette and Caroline Rilette).  Kayden is preteen and lives in the house with them. Cynthia is grown up and lives three and a half hours away; and she is somewhat estranged from her family, though exactly why is never clarified.

Did Carol and Gabe abandon Cynthia when she was young or did they raise her without acknowledging her? It might be that she is no longer Christian. I’m not exactly certain, but maybe I missed a clue or two in the storm and power failures, the dimming lights and desperate measures.

Autum Casey’s lighting design emotionally ramps up each scene, shifting dramatically throughout. At one point, when the storm weakens, faces emerge as if lit by the first sunny day in a month.

And I’m assuming that the fact that Carol and Cynthia, mother and daughter, are pregnant is important. Hence, we see the “baby” of the title in their bumps; hence, we hear the “miracle” of the title, when the mother thinks it must be a “miracle” that mother and daughter get pregnant at the same time.

The connection between women being pregnant and Superstorm being relentless never materializes, but perhaps there’s a bit of synchronicity at work here. As nature ravages what is, nature offers what might become.

(From left): Cody Nickell, Kate Eastwood Norris, Sarah Marshall, and Caroline Rilette. Photo by Scott Suchman.

Or could the play be speaking of a patriarchal Christ, embodied by a kind-hearted Gabe, defending the family against nature’s Superstorm?

Themes aside, in a play about a storm we need to see the humans struggle mightily to save themselves.

And indeed Nickell’s Gabe wages gallantly and foolishly against the wind, but it’s usually off-stage. At one point he enters covered in blood and guts, having had a head-on collision with a deer, with the deer lodging herself full-body into his car. I suppose you could laugh at said mishap (and some did), but it’s not really funny, for man or deer or his clearly frightened daughter Kayden.

But when the audience laughs at the most inappropriate places, like pregnant Cynthia’s psychological distress over the uncertainty in her life, one has to wonder where this tale of family life went wrong.

Is there some secret perversion at work here? Or is this the second flooding (not coming)? I thought: what’s with this storm and all this rain? Are we witnessing a new and better purging of human foibles?

Theatre’s strength has always resided in its empathetic power. The play presents a human dilemma: it exposes a human condition and we see a human struggle against the odds.

In Baby Screams Miracle the human struggle is absent except in hearsay, save for one brief scene when Gabe single handedly confronts the Monsterstorm as it blows through the window while the women cower in the bathroom.

Such, perhaps, is the truth about patriarchal religions, but shouldn’t we, when tragedy strikes, still weep? Or do all we have left is laughter?

I’ll vote for the weeping.

Running Time: one hour and 45 minutes, without an intermission.

Baby Screams Miracle plays through February 26, 2017, at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company – 641 D Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call (301) 928-2738, or purchase them online.

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