The weather has been bad since the beginning of time; it was horrible at the beginning of time. But the weather can get a whole lot worse when a wicked storm tears the lives of a Christian faith-based family asunder without warning. Baby Screams Miracle, a new work by Clara Barron, arrives to the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company stage under the Direction of Artistic Director Howard Shalwitz and it crashes upon the boards much like the storm inside the play crashes into the five members of the family contained within its pages. Evocative and thought-provoking, this theatrical experience will have you reeling at the edge of your seat, fully investing in the lives mangled and tangled in the grip of this sudden squall. A remarkable piece that addresses family, dysfunctionality, faith, love, loss, and everything in-between in one of the most dizzying cyclones of the emotional spectrum to hit the stage in recent years, Baby Screams Miracle is speaking to anyone who’s struggling— even just the tiniest bit— with their place in their life at this moment.
Aesthetically the show is striking on a level that defies description. Director Howard Shalwitz’ approach to capturing the storm and all of its force in a theatrical sense while still realistically portraying the destruction and detrimental effects of such an incident is astonishing. Threading an imaginative team of designers together with the notion of creation and destruction, Shalwitz manages to conceptualize this storm in the physical realm as well as the metaphorical one, creating an infinite depth to the symbolic reckoning of playwright Clare Barron’s work. In addition to drawing together sensational designers, Shalwitz has gathered a remarkably talented cast, each of whom contributes a unique and satisfying character portrayal to the process, making the work truly thrilling.
Barron’s work is riveting, not only because it possesses the spirt of a storm and articulates this notion in a profoundly striking way but because the characters she has crafted and the dynamic between them which she has constructed is unapologetically jarring and emotionally raw. The characters and the situation in which they find themselves are sobering in their reality, particularly when it comes to their relatability with the everyman. Barron’s voice is unique and distinctive, paving a path for realism among the spiritedly theatrical; she addresses topics that are relevant and potent without approaching them in a didactic fashion.
The storm itself becomes a character in this production. Brought to life in a combination effort by Video Designer Jared Mezzocchi, Lighting Designer Autum Casey, and Sound Designer Palmer Hefferan, the weather itself is alive in the arenas of sight and sound. Mezzocchi’s startling video approach, blended in perfect timing with Hefferan’s creates the realistic notion that the storm is sweeping through the very theatre. This authentic essence represented so openly sends shivers up and down the spine. Add to that the intricate yet subtle illuminations provided by Casey and the overall effect is something spectacular.
All of these carefully crafted design elements are woven together over the tapestry of Scenic Designer James Kronzer’s deceptively simplistic set. While at first there appears to be little more than a blank stage, an oversized dollhouse, and a projection screen, Kronzer’s employment of minimalism at the start makes the overall impact of various levels of reveal quite profound as the play progresses. The secondary version of the dollhouse as well as the bathroom scenic elements ground the play in its brutal reality and add echoes of how small and insignificant human life can be in the face of such a tempest.
Kayden (at this performance Mia Rilette), is simple, delicate, and uncertain, the way a young girl would naturally be when chaos is swirling around her. Rilette, who shares the role on alternating nights with twin sister Caroline Rilette, is convivial in her portrayal of the young character and articulates the emotion of fear most soundly when it comes to those moments that startle and unnerve the girl. Fitting into the overarching family dynamic of the play, Rilette delivers a striking understanding of how her character fits both spatially and emotionally into the scene work of the show.
Gabe (Cody Nickell) is the odd man out, quite literally, as he is the only male character in the production. Nickell takes advantage of the rare opportunity to be a man among women but does not overplay his hand with the masculine stereotype that could so readily befall a character in that situation. Congenial and earnest in his portrayal, with a smart sense of honest timing— both in severe moment and those of a more lighthearted nature— Nickell draws the audience into his experience with the storm— both the one badgering and blustering its way through the house and the one brewing in a much more calm and yet twice as deadly fashion among his family.
The heart of the show’s central struggle is the relationship dynamic between Barbara (Sarah Marshall), Carol (Kate Eastwood Norris) and Cynthia (Caroline Dubberly.) The way these three women, spanning three generations of one family, interact with one another as well as the other character in the production is truly profound. Each woman brings to the table a unique approach to the performance and what the storm— in both its realistic and metaphorical existence— means to them. The connections this trio of actors establishes over the duration of the performance is mesmerizing, drawing you into the reality of their situation as the storm rages on.
Sarah Marshall is the quirky and eccentric elderly maternal figure that everyone can relate to, be it via an older mother figure or truly zany grandma character from their personal life. Marshall’s simple and nonchalant comedic timing drives much needed levity at steady intervals throughout the production. There are more serious moments as well, which when handled by Marshall are served with the utmost reverence in mind. Her exchanges with the Cynthia character are some of the more deeply meaningful interactions that Marshall gets in the performance.
As the main mother, Kate Eastwood Norris, has a vibrancy about her character which thrives on the charge of the storm as it lays siege to the plot. Norris’ portrayal of the generally calm character of Carol showcases a desperate need for stimulation and does so with a believable authenticity. There is a vulnerable humanity in her expression as well. Norris takes the character of Carol on a wild emotional ride, hitting bumps, potholes, and fault-lines every step of the way. Delicately formulating a balance between confident and frightened, Norris makes Carol’s grievances with her family and the universe wholly relatable to the audience.
Caroline Dubberly slides into the role of Cynthia with an unsettling vim and vigor that almost rivals the energy which fuels the storm. Without expressing too many particulars for fear of spoiling some of the more creative and clever twists Barron has penned, it can be said that Dubberly is emotionally invested in her portrayal and has striking moments of cathartic clarity as well as deeply introspective moments of reflective examination. The way Dubberly twists Barron’s words, loading them with feeling to the point of mangling them into unrecognizable pathos pouring from her lips— particularly in that heady and nauseating prayer confession scene— is stirring. Her hold on the character and the character’s overall progression is striking as well.
Storms will blow through and what will be left in the end? Will you be left standing? Will your ideas, your beliefs, your relations, your loves? Don’t wait to find out how serious this storm gets. Get your ticket to Baby Screams Miracle before the damage is done and it’s too late.
Running Time: Approximately 105 minutes with no intermission
Baby Scream Miracle plays through February 26, 2017 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company— 641 D Street NW in the Penn Quarter District of Washington DC. For tickets call the box office at (202) 393-3939 or purchase them online.
To read the interview with Kate Eastwood Norris and Cody Nickell, click here.