Albee's `Baby' talk: deeply moving

THEATER

Newcomers enhance Corner Theatre's coming-of-age story

September 30, 2004|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Edward Albee gave his 1998 play a deceptively simple title - The Play About the Baby. Part of the deception has to do with the baby, specifically, whether there is a baby. And, if there is, whether it's the same baby referred to in Albee's 1962 Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

What's not the least bit deceptive is the deep anguish you are left with at the end of The Play About the Baby, which is receiving a disturbing and moving Baltimore premiere at Fell's Point Corner Theatre, under the direction of Alex Willis.

Above all, The Play About the Baby is a play about loss - the loss of innocence and purity. It's a coming-of-age tale about a young couple (identified only as Boy and Girl) whose blissful existence is horridly shattered by the arrival of a mysterious older couple (Man and Woman).

In Albee's view, maturity is measured by suffering and our ability to cope with it. "If you have no wounds, how can you know if you're alive?" Man asks. He and Woman may seem like malevolent spirits who arbitrarily decide to hurt Boy and Girl. But they can also be viewed as harbingers of reality, who have come to help - or more accurately, force - the younger generation to grow up.

It's a cruel lesson that seems even crueler because Frank B. Moorman as Man and Debbie Bennett as Woman are so cavalierly heartless. Unlike Boy (Shannon Webber) and Girl (Tiffany James), who are most often seen relating to each other, Moorman's Man and Bennett's Woman each have long monologues spoken directly to the audience.

Indeed, their characters could be portrayed far more broadly, as stand-up comedians perhaps, with a rim shot punctuating the awful crime they perpetrate on Boy and Girl.

Willis' direction is more restrained, however. The result is that it's possible to imagine Boy and Girl growing up to become Man and Woman, a prospect that is all the more frightening for being so credible.

Three of the four cast members are newcomers to Fell's Point Corner, and of these, Moorman and James are especially welcome additions. The character of Man orchestrates the action, and Moorman plays him with a professorial air, although this is a professor who is wise, but definitely not kind. (Bennett's Woman may think that she's in charge as well, but even she is clearly doing Man's bidding.)

If Moorman's Man is a creature of pure reason, James' Girl is a creature of pure feeling, and the freshness and openness that James brings to her portrayal contribute significantly to the play's heartbreak. The only performance that falls short is that of Webber (the third newcomer), who at times appears blase, or even disengaged, as Boy.

To return to those questions about the existence and identity of the baby, Albee has insisted that, yes, there is a real baby, whereas the child referred to in Virginia Woolf is imaginary.

"What's true and what isn't is a tricky business, no?" Man asks in his opening remarks. It's a comment that applies to this entire play. Tricky? Yes. Harrowingly so.

Show times at Fell's Point Corner, 251 S, Ann St., are 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 2 p.m. Sundays, through Oct. 10. Tickets are $14. (Note: For mature audiences; contains nudity.) For more information, call 410-276-7837.

Arena's `Blue'

Arena Players' production of Charles Randolph-Wright's Blue is also a Baltimore premiere, but this is a far more conventional play - in most respects.

A cross between a sitcom and a melodrama, Blue is an account of a wealthy African-American family, the Clarks, who own a South Carolina funeral parlor.

The mother, Peggy, is a former Ebony model who has never adjusted to small-town life. When she isn't trying to run her sons' lives - coercing younger son, Reuben, to practice the trumpet and trying to keep older son, Sam, from marrying beneath his station - Peggy escapes by listening to records by a crooner named Blue Williams. (The songs are by Randolph-Wright and composer Nona Hendryx.)

The plot, which culminates in a tabloid-TV-style revelation, is soapy stuff, but Randolph-Wright includes two theatrical devices that elevate the play above the typical domestic comedy/drama. The first is that whenever one of his records is played, Blue appears on stage and sings (listening to the mellow voice of Richard Harris, as Blue, is a genuine delight).

The other device is that Reuben is portrayed by two actors - Dominic Gladden as a 12-year-old and Maurice Daniel as an adult - who frequently appear on stage together, egging each other on or conversing about the past or future.

For the most part, Blue isn't developed as a character; we don't see him interact with anyone else until the very end. But as we eventually discover, the reason he haunts the action goes deeper than Peggy's admiration of his music.

Under Randolph Smith's direction, O'Bryant Kenner is especially noteworthy as the kind, indulgent husband of Charlene Harris' eccentric Peggy, a character with a penchant for self-dramatization.

Although Randolph-Wright (who has worked extensively at Washington's Arena Stage, where Blue debuted in 2000) chose a traditional format for this play, he peopled it with characters rarely depicted on stage - upper-class blacks. It's the nontraditional moments, however, that distinguish the script stylistically, and one can't help wishing the play's format was as brave as its characters.

Show times at Arena Players, 801 McCulloh St., are 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 4 p.m. Sundays, through Oct. 10. Tickets are $15. For more information, call 410-728-6500.

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