Playwright Clare Barron describes Baby Screams Miracle as an "American Family Play," which is an apt description even if her work bears little resemblance to those examinations of suffering relations we know and love by Eugene O'Neill, Arthur Miller, or even Tracy Letts. In Baby Screams Miracle a furiously destructive storm batters three generations (with a fourth on the way), obliterating their home, changing their lives, and leaving the survivors with a tenuous path forward. Don't look for too much meaning in the play's title, which according to Barron is "a bit of a Rorschach test for the audience" -- the miracle here is in the way her play creates such a deep impression in approximately a hundred minutes (without intermission).
Caught in the storm are Carol (Kate Eastwood Norris) and her husband Gabe (Cody Nickell), their adult daughter Cynthia (Caroline Dubberly), their younger gradeschooler Kayden, (alternated by Mia Rilette and Caroline Rilette -- Mia seen here) , and Carol's mother Barbara (Sarah Marshall). They live in the rural, red-state part of Washington, where the bible has more cultural sway than the state's giant tech companies. Carol and Gabe are a devout Christian couple, Gabe a little more so, perhaps because he's not nearly as centered as Carol, who's stoically pregnant with their third child. He leans heavily on Jesus for guidance, while Carol might be better off if she had more reason to have faith in Gabe. Cynthia, their first, is also pregnant, and doubts herself as much as she does her fiancé's steadfastness. Conceived while Carol and Gabe were still teenagers and raised by Barbara, Cynthia's self-esteem isn't helped by going along with the family ruse that she's her younger sister's aunt.
The impending storm compels Cynthia, who's been living estranged from her family a couple of hours away, to pay them a visit. Neither Gabe nor Carol seem especially pleased to see her -- they can barely cope with what they have in front of them, much less the guilt and frustration Cynthia's presence represents. Barbara's a steadier, more maternal influence, if not necessarily one that inspires confidence. Kayden may have some issues of her own. The storm bearing down on them reveals the quieter storms within themselves, and as it tears apart the family's home it reveals long-buried truths and fears, followed by attempts to redress, or at least acknowledge them.
Thankfully Barron's script doesn't reveal everything and lets the actors do a lot of the work -- rather than explicate her characters' flaws and hopes, Barron lets them reverberate through the howling wind and rain. Carol and Cynthia's advanced pregnancies loom in the foreground, but are barely discussed. The impact these children will have on their mothers' lives doesn't need to be stated. Only Cynthia's character gets a monologue, and when it comes it feels just right, forming an emotional eye in the center of the storm. Secular audience members might find Baby's early going a bit tedious, but the family's religious expression becomes more organic as the play progresses.
Above everything else, this is a play about endurance and survival, and Barron's prosaic characters and setting, coupled with her willingness to let the audience fill in some of the gaps, makes for potent theater. In Woolly Mammoth's current production that potency is enhanced by the stunning stage design and effects created by the team of James Kronzer (scenic designer), Autum Casey (lighting), Jared Mezzochi (video projection), and Palmer Hefferan, whose sound design is truly outstanding. The storm created on the theater's stage is so impactful at one point I began to expect drops of water to fall from the ceiling (they don't). Every member of the cast does remarkable, moving work under Howard Shalwitz's direction.
Baby Screams Miracle is now onstage at Woolly Mammoth through February 26.
Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company: 641 D Street, NW, in Washington, DC.
For tickets, call (301) 928-2738, buy them online, or check for discounted tickets on Goldstar.
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