“Electric Baby” delivers emotional charge for Kickshaw’s first
ANN ARBOR, Mich.–If you see Kickshaw Theatre’s inaugural production, Stefanie Zadravec’s ethereal drama The Electric Baby, you just might wonder where the company will go from here – because, wow, is the bar already set high.
Baby tells the story of a handful of people whose lives intersect when Helen (Julia Glander), a mother grieving the death of her grown daughter, storms off into traffic and causes a cab to crash into a pole. Rozie (Mary Diworth) and Dan (Michael Lopetrone), fresh from impulsively quitting their crummy restaurant jobs, are the cab’s passengers, driven by Ambimbola (William Bryson), a man who loves buying lottery tickets as much as he hates swearing and lovers’ quarrels.
Helen, despite warnings from her concerned, protective husband Reed (Peter Carey), can’t stop herself from visiting those affected by the accident; and a Romanian woman, Natalia (Vanessa Sawson), offers home remedy recipes to the audience while also narrating stories to the mysterious, glowing baby she’s watching over.
While other dramas have used a similar, tragedy-as-point-of-connection premise – Robert Hewett’s play, The Blonde, the Brunette, and the Vengeful Redhead, the 2003 film 21 Grams etc. – Baby ‘s humor-infused, wholly engrossing scenes somehow make it feel new again.
But even a strong script needs thoughtful execution, particularly in an unconventional warehouse space like Ann Arbor’s Interfaith Center for Spiritual Growth. Director Lynn Lammers more than delivers, crafting a production in which the fluidity of just-right pacing is integral to its overall emotional impact. (A theatergoer seated behind me on opening night wept unabashedly during the show’s final scenes.)
Lammers also knows how to give the play’s humor plenty of room to breathe, so as to balance the characters’ grief. Under her guidance, the whole cast hits it out of the park. Glander makes Helen’s pain and vulnerability palpable to the point where you want to intervene and protect her from herself. Lopetrone also does terrific work morphing from a stuttering, lovestruck restaurant worker to a nurse and then a chipper burger server with impressive mastery. And Bryson and Sawson, though they share no scenes until the play’s end, form the story’s loving, open-hearted core, sharing their characters’ personal insights and remedies in the face of an impending loss so huge it will otherwise swallow them whole.
Amber Marisa Cook designed the show’s set, which places Natalia and her glowing-orb baby above the action upstage right, in front of a larger, faux-brick wall backdrop. This is broken up by black sections that appear to open out into the cosmos, and red connector wires that travel up from the Electric Baby’s nursery and into the brickwork. Stef Din designed the show’s props (including Fixin’s menus, a hospital remote control, etc.). Chantel Gaidica’s lighting design is breathtaking – all the more remarkable given that the space is not built for theater productions – with no small assist from master electrician Christopher George Haug. Em Rossi designed the show’s spot-on, character-defining costumes. Will Myers’ sound design provides what the characters are hearing within their world, as well as subtle music that undergirds the tone of a few scenes.
With Baby, Kickshaw’s working on all cylinders right out of the gate, heartening to see given the tough, recent loss of Performance Network Theatre from Ann Arbor’s cultural landscape.
Often, of course, a baby is a sign of rebirth and hope. Kickshaw appears to be offering local theatergoers just that, along with a magical, moving night of storytelling. And it’s hard to beat that combination.