Author: MacKillop, James
Date published: February 24, 2010
The Parent Trap
Adoption and other challenges are addressed in Emma's Child at Le Moyne
There's so much going on in Kristine Thatcher's play Emma's Child, no one-liner about it can hit the mark. If pressed, a scribe at TV Guide might offer: "Childless upper middle-class couple adopts hydrocephalic infant." And you'd expect a sudsy movie-of-the-week with lots of sobbing. But Thatcher, who cut her dramatic teeth playing in Tom Stoppard dramas, always favors counterintuitive directions. She knows how to surprise the audience and delights in the unexpected. For all the heartfelt emotion in this transparently autobiographical story, laughs beat tears better than 4-to-1. Thatcher's play is the spring production from Le Moyne College's Boot and Buskin Theatre Group, now playing at the Coyne Center for the Performing Arts.
Playwright Thatcher is a leading voice in regional theater and is currently running the Boar's Head in Lansing, Mich., a venue known for innovation greater than the size of the city might imply. She calls for the action to be staged on two simultaneous sets, one above the other, in which dialogue from one level frequently overlaps and comments upon dialogue in the other. Further, she often calls for scenes to appear out of sequence, so that we re-examine the emotions of, say, Scene G because we already know what's coming in Scene H. Such a device, also found in Harold Pinter, Brian Friel and Thornton Wilder, should not be dismissed as "arty." She wants us to see how much meaning is packed into the words of an "ordinary" conversation.
Jean (Carmen Viviano-Crafts) and Henry Farrell (Alex Gherardi) are a professional, 30- something couple who remain childless after 15 years of effort, personal and technological. After meeting with a social worker (Alisha Espinosa), they agree to adopt whatever infant they can get, regardless of race or medical condition, but Henry admits he'd prefer a healthy white girl. The Emma of the title (Kelsey Moriarty) is a young poor white, who already has a 2-year-old and lives with her alcoholic father.
Although Henry and Jean are happily married, they are not Ozzie and Harriet. Jean's best friend, Franny (Fiona Barbour), is cheating on her husband. Jean can be overly assertive and has the beginnings of being a control freak, and while Henry wants to go along with Jean, his heart is not quite in the same place. This tension never demeans Henry but rather allows the audience the breathing room to say to ourselves that perhaps very few of us would have the courage and self-sacrifice to take on the responsibility of Robin, the name given Emma's child.
Tensions develop in three loops. First, there is the continuing medical prognosis, followed by Jean's attempts to read the best into any news. She interacts with medical personnel like Mary Jo (Kim Pompo), a funky, low-level nurse's aide, and Laurence (Casey Hunter), an earthy, truth-telling male nurse. Note that Thatcher is the rare female playwright who not only creates empathetic male characters but allows them to speak with the emotional intelligence more often attributed to women.
Indeed, women in authority, especially if they carry clipboards, are people to watch out for, as in Jean's tense encounters with a prominent neurosurgeon (Katie Edwards) and an officious hospital administrator (Lauren Pisano). Gender is not the issue here, of course, but instead that Jean's struggle is greater than trying to beat the fate biology has dealt to an infant.
Yet gender is an issue if Jean's marriage is to survive the unbearable pressures it faces in this ordeal. In a disorienting change of pace at the beginning of the second act, Thatcher moves the action to the Au Sable River in northern Michigan, where Henry is on a fishing trip with Franny's husband Sam (Andrew Derminio). Although the men are astonishingly literary, quoting both Keats and Yeats, they speak freely of misogyny, their impatience with women. Of the tenderer emotions Sam advises, "Just take a deep breath and think of Chuck Norris-and it'll go away." For a while it feels as though Thatcher is trying to prove that Emma's Child is not a soap opera, until we realize that the playwright is showing us how Henry is defining his love for Jean.
Emma's Child is an unusual choice for a college drama department; perhaps Le Moyne College director Steve Braddock thought of the drama as a teaching tool. Yet no faculty director ever undertakes a project unless he knows he has the troops to take on the hardest tasks. Carmen Viviano-Crafts and Alex Gherardi set themselves apart from other student actors because they both have wide experience beyond the college door. This week both have been nominated for the Syracuse New Times Syracuse Area Live Theater (SALT) Awards for roles in the Wit's End Players' socko production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, in which both played comic roles.
In Emma's Child Gherardi gets more than his share of the comic lines, and never fails to ignite the spark, starting in his nervous dialogue with the social worker where he confuses "fire alarms" with "firearms." Gherardi's Henry is a decent guy who must travel a long arc. Knowing the impossibility of what his wife is trying to do, he has to convince his head to keep pace with his heart.
Jean, on the other hand, is an impossible dreamer, not unlike that man from La Mancha. She not only accepts Robin, Emma's child, and will pay any cost to nurture him, but she wants to start his cultivation by having him listen to Itzhak Perlman and Placido Domingo on a headset. Statistically, the daunting odds are against her and grow more unfavorable with every blast of bad news, despite her determination to grasp whatever silver thread can be found. A benefit in casting Viviano-Crafts as Jean is her body-set, very tall and very thin: a Ms. Quixote with imperishable ideals. Her innate, unspoken capacity for comedy takes her to the brink of tears without splashing in. The role is nothing less than a triumph, one of the best ever seen at Le Moyne's Boot and Buskin Theatre Group.
The excellence of Emma's Child could not exist without the fully professional staff supporting the students, starting with Meggan Camp's costumes and Michael Blagys' lighting. Scenic design wizard Karel Blakeley's set, on two levels, part rotating, contributes to the action in way s few local companies could match.
This production runs through Saturday, Feb. 27. See Times Table for information.