Metro Weekly

Storm Troopers: Baby Screams Miracle at Woolly Mammoth (Review)

Woolly Mammoth's atmospheric production of Clare Barron's stark examination of faith yields less than blessed results

Baby Screams Miracle — Photo: Scott Suchman

A massive, raging storm bears down on a small, eastern Washington state town. Devoutly Christian and pregnant mother Carol (Kate Eastwood Norris) and her equally devout husband, Gabe (Cody Nickell), give thanks to the Lord for their blessings and pray that He will protect their home and family from the ravages of the coming tempest. As becomes apparent relatively quickly, it’s with some good judgment that Carol and Gabe should put their faith and fate in God’s hands: it might take a miracle to survive the onslaught of gale force winds, biblical rains, fallen trees, storm-tossed deer, and the unexpected arrival of their adult daughter, Cynthia (Caroline Dubberly), who also happens to be very pregnant with her first child in Clare Barron’s Baby Screams Miracle (starstarstar), now at Woolly Mammoth.

Since Gabe can’t seem to fix anything around the house without breaking something else — usually some part of his body — it’s a good thing Carol’s sturdy mother, Barbara (Sarah Marshall), is on hand to help batten down the hatches and keep an eye on the couple’s nine-year old daughter, Kayden (Mia Rilette). As the storm hits, bringing floods and power outages, the loving but fractured family huddles together, forced to rely on each other for safety, mostly united in their faith that the Lord will see them through any ensuing devastation. They will need more than prayer, however, when close quarters, frightening circumstances and Cynthia’s inscrutably aggressive behavior, especially towards young Kayden, all threaten to stir up more dirt and devastation than any random weather event. These are extreme times, as Grandma Barbara wisely remarks.

Howard Shalwitz stages the extremely windswept action via an evocative mix of multi-layered lighting, sound and video design (crafted by, respectively, Autum Casey, Palmer Hefferan and Jared Mezzocchi), abetted by wind machines and good, old-fashioned physical comedy. The dynamic presentation of the characters’ hostile environment adds a storybook quality of wonder and excitement to what feels like a grown-up fable about the faithful besieged by disasters both natural and familial.

A centerpiece image in Shalwitz’s production is a miniature model of Carol and Gabe’s wood-frame house, which succumbs to gusty winds and, hoisted by wires, takes off like Auntie Em’s farmhouse up, up, up over the stage. Later, in its oddly timed descent back down to the stage, the model house resembles nothing so much as Spinal Tap‘s tiny Stonehenge slowly, comically coming to rest at the actors’ feet. Given the effectiveness of the multi-media scene-setting, the dwarf house seems a misstep.

Baby Screams Miracle — Photo: Scott Suchman

Barron pokes at the existential angst of bringing new life into an uncertain world, as well as the ordinary perils of being a parent (“It’s hard, motherhood.”). With Cynthia’s strange behavior — particularly in an uncomfortably intimate, teasing game she introduces to Kayden — the play raises the decidedly more sinister possibility that some long-past or recent sexual abuse occurred in the family. But, as darkly intriguing as that possibility and its ramifications might be, the family’s secrets and tricky relationships ultimately are hard to pin down, due in no small part to deliberate obfuscation on Cynthia’s part, and the play’s too-opaque view of other characters’ motives beyond surviving the storm.

A bouncy succession of scenes, staged often as ying-yang duos (Carol and Gabe, Cynthia and Kayden, Gabe and Cynthia) pile up, as the family’s faith is tested by death, destruction and Gabe’s accident-prone attempts to secure their lives and property. Yet the underlying purpose doesn’t manifest in a particularly moving fashion, despite each cast member seizing their moment to shine.

Woolly Mammoth vets Norris and Nickell bring a compellingly salt-of-the-earth quality to Carol and Gabe, rendering their faith in God and commitment to each other as the pillars of a sweet, loving marriage of like-minded individuals. Longtime company member Marshall is a total delight channeling Barron’s looping, occasionally Beckettian rhythms through the persona of an amusingly with-it and folksy grandma. The subtle implication that, despite her grandmotherly appeal, Barbara might be the damaged root of an unhealthy family tree, comes through vaguely, yet powerfully enough to make the point.

Far more forceful in making her points, Dubberly’s Cynthia, full of rage and pain and reproach, elevated by the actor’s often melodic delivery, supplies much of the requisite tension and danger. Cynthia is the storm that bears the most ill winds, and Dubberly captures the hail of emotions that stir her to incite trouble. Unfortunately, a few fine performances and one miniature, floating house are not enough to connect this play’s disjointed narrative.

To Feb. 26 at Woolly Mammoth, 641 D St NW. Tickets are $20 to $64. Call 202-393-3939, or visit woollymammoththeatre.net.

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André Hereford covers arts and entertainment for Metro Weekly. He can be reached at ahereford@metroweekly.com. Follow him on Twitter at @here4andre.

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