From Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, Howard Shalwitz presents an ominous production about a rural American family in crisis. In Baby Screams Miracle, Obie-award-winning playwright Clare Barron elegantly weaves a duality of calm and peril into an intimate exploration of prayer and the forces of nature against humanity. The play is a story of survival, familiar only in its investigation of how fragile we are against nature and God. Baby Screams Miracle is a story for the faithful and faithless alike about a family united tenuously by their will to survive.
As the play begins, we see on the stage a miniature model house sitting alone before a looming projection of blinking stars. A serene audio-scape of crickets and wind blowing through leaves creates a familiar atmosphere for anyone who has spent a night in the woods. Soon a man and woman enter the stage, wrapped in blankets and huddled on chairs together by the model house. This is Gabriel [Cody Nickells] and Carol [Kate Eastwood Norris], our patriarch and matriarch of the family drama.
Carol and Gabe begin a back-and-forth prayer as they huddle together. For Gabriel, his prayer is formal, at times poetic even, and Carol is more pedestrian in her desires, mentioning her overwhelming emails, and asking too for self-love and strength. The opening prayer ends with the sounds of a turbulent storm—the first that begins to shatter their lives as they know it.
James Kronzer’s set design features a miniature model home that suffers through degrees of destruction throughout the performance. At the opening, the house stands in good form, and after the first scene, we see that a tree has fallen onto the house, sending broken glass and leaves across the stage. This house becomes both model and metaphor for the family as they endure the violent weather.
The next scene is the aftermath of a strong, but not yet devastating, storm; the stage is strewn with leaves and debris as Carol, grandmother Barbara [Sarah Marshall] and granddaughter Kayden [Mia and Caroline Rilette – alternating] are bustling to restore their home to normalcy. In this scene, we meet Cynthia [Caroline Dubberly] the estranged daughter of Carol and check on her family after the storm, and this reunion is an unexpected one.
Cynthia is visibly pregnant, and notably, so is her mother, Carol. This simultaneous pregnancy is only briefly addressed in the production; their pregnancies represent one of the many unspoken tensions that underscore the family drama. A certain beauty of Baby Screams Miracle lies in the characters and events that aren’t talked about, and in the deafening silences that punctuate the script, all calling notice to the play’s sharp title.
Cynthia was born to her parents when they were quite young, and dialogue reveals the tension between her and her father Gabriel especially. Gabe is gentle, kind-hearted, and full of prayer, but without judgment. He is unlike most rugged protagonists of family dramas, because he is no brute nor domineering patriarch, although his strong physicality is demonstrated consistently as he works to protect his family.
As the weather becomes increasingly violent, the family is forced to come together into smaller and smaller rooms throughout the night for their safety, first spreading mattresses on the floor together and later taking refuge in a cramped bathroom. The loveliest scenes of the play are those that draw the family together, in the glow of candlelight and industrial flashlights, when they engage fully as an ensemble. Playful humor abounds, despite the dark urgency of their situation. Jokes and anecdotes again turn to prayer, though, as the night passes. Urged by her family, during these quiet moments Cynthia prays over a candle and confesses to us: “I am full of rage for as long as I remember.”
The family finally leaves their crumbling home during a lull in the storm, seeking a place to bury their dog and hoping for a motel with spare rooms. There are many subtle and not-so-subtle Biblical themes in this play, and in the latter half of the play, in particular, Biblical imagery prevails. The frailty of humankind against violence in nature, the killing of animals, the act of seeking shelter for pregnant women, and unwavering prayer are amplified themes when the family flees home.
Shalwitz ambitiously confronts the text’s use of spectacle with stunning lighting and soundscapes, with some promising clips of video. In the woods, we witness the beauty of Autum Casey’s lighting design, and Palmer Hefferan’s spot-on sound design captures the sounds and feeling of moving through a forest in a storm.
Jared Mezzochi’s video design, which is featured during the driving scene and woods especially, is stylistically blurry, and at times difficult to follow because of this abstract approach. The video is at its strongest during less chaotic moments, with the streaming sunlight through the forest and the dazzling screen of blinking stars at the show’s opening.
There is a raw wildness to this production, lurking underneath the text, and brought playfully to life with the ensemble and production’s stunning overall design. Gabriel sums up the good humor of this apocalyptic play: “[It would] Be kinda fun if it were really the end of the world.”
Baby Screams Miracle lacks the pretension of other productions that attempt to explore rural life. The text doesn’t attempt to justify or analyze or exalt; it simply presents an often misunderstood family in earnest. Barron does not surrender to simple traps in her play, where she could poke fun at the lives of this rural family. It would be tempting for Clare Barron to write Gabriel as the patriarchal villain of the play, up against so many challenging female characters; instead, he is kind, loving, and at times too-good—a welcome change in depictions of fathers.
While the American Family Play is a story often told in contemporary theater, Baby Screams Miracle shows us a family unknown to the stage, but familiar to our lives. Unlike the darkly troubled families of Sam Shephard’s plays, Barron’s family does not suffer a dark plot reveal or deeply troubled past; they are rooted instead in the apocalyptic struggles of their present, buoyed up by love and good humor, and steadfast against the tempests that try to undo them.
Baby Screams Miracle is playing until February 26, 2017. Running Time: 1 hour and 45 minutes with no intermission. Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company – 641 D Street, NW in Washington, DC – through February 26, 2017. For tickets, call the box office at 202-393-3939 or find them here.