I’ve been thinking a lot over the last day or so about how to describe what kind of play The Electric Baby is. It doesn’t fall very readily into any of the categories we often call up to label a play, or, rather, it spans many of those categories. It has both comedy and tragedy; it combines elements of the real and the fantastical; it is simultaneously intimate and grand; and it moves fluidly between the lyrical and profane. The Electric Baby — a new play by Stefanie Zadravec that is in its first full production — is a beautifully written, moving chamber piece that revolves around the ways people cope (or fail to cope) with loss.
A taxi accident in downtown Pittsburgh pulls the play’s five characters into each other’s orbits. Helen (Laurie Klatscher) and Reed (John Shepard) have just left a housewarming party for their deceased daughter’s former boyfriend, where they discover he is about to become a father; angered and upset by the emotional ambush, Helen steps off the curb and into the path of a cab. The cab driver, Bimbo (Monteze Freeland) has come from Africa to make his fortune; his two passengers are the angry gen-X Rozie (Ruth Gamble) and her stuttering admirer Dan (Nick Lehane), who has just gotten Rozie fired from her bar job. The hospital where all four are taken after the accident becomes the hub of a wheel of new connections and relationships between them, as Helen seeks to assuage her guilt over having caused the accident, Rozie finds herself haunted by Dan, and Reed seeks the affection and intimacy that Helen has denied him since the death of their daughter. Threading through, above, and beneath these characters’ desperate attempts to deal with the aftermath of a moment’s inattention are the stories told by Bimbo’s wife, the Romanian Natalia (Robin Abramson) to their baby, who “glows like the moon.” He is the electric baby of the title, and he suffers from an unnamed malady that requires her steady, calm, loving, unstinting attention. The counterpoint between Natalia’s settled, matter-of-fact posession of Old World stories and superstitions and Helen, Reed, and Rozie’s frantically unmoored attempts to heal their wounded psyches is part of what makes this play work; Natalia may have a surefire folk cure for everything (cold potatoes under the armpits for body odor, a cookie and a glass of milk for insomnia, etc), but it’s her firm grounding in this belief system that helps her cope with the miracle and tragedy of her child in ways that the other characters don’t seem to be able.
The production, eloquently staged by Daniella Topol, quietly invites us to settle in with it and live in its world. The auditorium of the Waldorf School of Pittsburgh provides the setting; scene designer Stephanie Mayer-Staley has built a multi-leveled set in the small space and ingeniously transfigured the murals on the school’s walls into three dimensions. The auditorium’s large windows form most of the back wall of the set; on opening night the production’s excellent sound and lighting design (Ryan McMasters & C. Todd Brown) were enhanced by a spectacular thunderstorm (visible through the windows) that underscored not only the many references to the moon but also the supernatural elements that nudge the play into magical realism. The cast is uniformly excellent — as Helen and Reed, Laurie Klatscher & John Shepard bring depth to their roles; Ruth Gamble is funny and convincing as the unlikable, foul-mouthed Rozie; and Monteze Freeland’s Bimbo is sweet and charming. Nick Lehane gives good definition to three separate characters, and manages to be both supplicating and menacing as Dan. Robin Abramson plays Natalia with deft simplicity, making her moment of loss towards the end of the play that much more heartrending.
Producing this play at the Waldorf School was an inspired decision; the building feels both majestic and magical, and carries in its walls its history as an Ursuline convent as well as a children’s school. The combination of sedimented spirituality and the promise and playfulness of childhood that is imbued in the space resonates in complex ways with the play’s funny, quirky, and touching exploration of how difficult it can be to parry the unfair blows life unexpectedly rains upon us.