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Perhaps the best way to view Ghost & Spice’s latest production, Edward Albee’s The Play About the Baby, is to make sure that we can separate what is real from what isn’t. Granted this is difficult when viewing a play, which rationally isn’t reality at all; but that is part and parcel of the play. Albee, best known for his masterful Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and his rather nasty little “Zoo Story,” knows exactly what he is doing by creating this work. It is a series of conflicts between opposites: real vs. unreal, innocence vs. knowledge, young vs. old, and, ultimately, good vs. evil. That there is a baby at the center simply makes the stakes much higher.
But the baby itself — and we use that pronoun because we never learn its gender — is only the crux of the matter for half the cast. The other half is only interested in that child because it is, obviously, the most important thing in the lives of the two who brought it into the world.
The two who care for their child are known to us only as The Boy (Joe Brack) and The Girl (Heather J, Hackford). They are in their low twenties, married, and their child is born at the top of the show. We assume, because we are led to, that the set is their home; it only consists of two chairs and a rug in this room (the set), and “in there,” the rest of the house: nursery, bedroom, bath, etc. (offstage). We meet the child briefly — or, at least, we assume so; it is wrapped up tightly in its swaddling blanket — but for the most part the baby remains in the nursery. Boy and Girl, meanwhile, are busy possibly making a sibling for the child, as they dash madly after one another across the “living room,” dressed only in their birthday suits. This foreplay is witnessed by one member of the other couple of the play, Woman (Lenore Field), as she is introducing herself to us. She is shortly joined by her partner, Man (John Murphy), who has already been in and introduced himself before calling his partner onstage and abandoning her there. But our young couple does not know them and wonder out loud, and often, who they are and why they are here.
A lot of the play, like Albee’s other works, is humor-based and seems irrelevant; Man, for example, expounds for several minutes on why, when driving somewhere for the first time, it seems to take so much longer than it does driving back. But all attempts at humor and all kidding stops abruptly when Man finally answers Boy’s question, “What do you want?” His simple reply is, “Oh, we’ve come for the baby.” This shock-and-awe-inspiring statement closes Act I, and all games, bets, and gloves are suddenly off.
Hackford and Brack do a wonderful job of making their love for each other evident; they are openly affectionate, caring, and wanting of each other. Their nuances as a team make it difficult to believe that they could be anything else but a young couple in love. Field and Murphy are not so much interested in making themselves evident as a couple — the fact that they are there together and act in conjunction toward their goal makes it evident to the other couple — and their interest is more in inflicting terror than in revealing anything much about themselves.
For the remainder of the play, the Boy and the Girl play the victims, as if they were a couple who had been taken hostage by terrorists. Man and Woman do their best to terrorize the two, and succeed quite well, using the possible return of their child to keep them docile. Thus, the casting of Murphy and Field as the older pair is perfect. Murphy plays this role as easily as breathing; it is a role he was born to play. It requires a Man who is controlling, in control, smug, very good at what he does, and very sure of himself and others. Field plays Woman as someone quite full of herself, but also aware she is wiser, smarter, quicker, and in control over the future of this undeserving young couple.
This is the crux of Albee’s work. The older couple has come to teach the younger couple about life. A child has been born. Innocence is over. The playwright uses many theatrical tricks he has used in his other works: the seeming ability of the elders to control the youngers; the constant repetition of what has gone before, often retold by another character; the idea that these naïve youths are not worthy of having a child of their own. More than once, Man asks of all the cast and, indeed, of us, “Without wounds, what are you? How can you know?” And later, “No, we wouldn’t break your arm. Your heart, though; we would break that.”
Like Albee’s other works, this play is a mind game; but also, like his other works, we are unsure just whose minds are being played with. Ultimately, the older couple departs, but by then we have begun to wonder what has been lost, by whom, and why. Albee does not give us answers; only questions. But even if we are unsure of what was reality or not onstage, we are sure that the lump in our chest as we depart the theater is very real, indeed.
Ghost & Spice Productions presents The Play About the Baby Thursday-Saturday, March 3-5 and 10-12, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, March 6, at 2 p.m. at the Common Ground Theatre, 4815B Hillsborough Rd., Durham, North Carolina. $14 ($12 students and seniors). 919/698-3870 or http://www.ghostandspice.com/. Common Ground Theatre: http://www.cgtheatre.com/.
Chapel Hill, NC-based Ghost & Spice Productions will present The Play About the Baby, another absurdist black comedy by Edward Albee, Feb. 24-March 12. Ironically, March 12th is the 77th birthday of the prolific American playwright and master of avant-garde and experimental drama who won two Tony Awards® for Best Play — for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1963), and The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? (2002) — and three Pulitzer Prizes for Drama — for A Delicate Balance (1967), Seascape (1975), and Three Tall Women (1994).
“In the beginning [of The Play About the Baby],” says the director, “we find Boy (Joe Brack) and Girl (Heather J. Hackford) eagerly awaiting the birth of their first child. The child is born, and the play explores the joy of young love and innocence.
“Then, two strange visitors unexpectedly appear: Man (John Murphy) and Woman (Lenore Field). Man and Woman engage in psychological games with Boy and Girl — ultimately leaving them with the life lesson of great loss.”
Playwright Edward Albee claims, “No two people will see the same play. It is about a real baby who by the end of the play ceases to exist. It is about what happens during the course of the event. I think it’s perfectly straightforward and simple. I can’t really talk about what it means [or] what the audience is going to get. It’s a chamber play. It’s a little experimental in the sense that it does some things, which your average Broadway audience doesn’t want.”
Albee is a 1996 recipient of The Kennedy Center Honors, presented by The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC. That same year, President Clinton awarded Albee the National Medal of Arts.
“Edward Albee burst onto the American theatrical scene in the late 1950s,” according to his bio for The Kennedy Center Honors, “with a variety of plays that detailed the agonies and disillusionment of that decade and the transition from the placid Eisenhower years to the turbulent 1960s. Albee’s plays, with their intensity, their grappling with modern themes, and their experiments in form, startled critics and audiences alike while changing the landscape of American drama. He was unanimously hailed as the successor to Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, and Eugene O’Neill.”
Written and first produced in London in 1998, The Play About the Baby made its New York debut Off Broadway in January 2001. Donald Lyons of The New York Post called this play “an absurd meditation on marriage, trust and fertility[,] one of Albee’s best works, a zany and sad reflection on life and theater.” The Play About the Baby earned Albee another Pulitzer Prize nomination.
In his New York Times review, Ben Brantley called the play “an invaluable self-portrait of sorts from one of the few genuinely great living American dramatists: a pointed summing up of what he’s been saying in plays ranging from the succinct ‘Zoo Story’ to the recently revived (and prolix) Tiny Alice. Not that Baby is literally autobiographical in the way that Mr. Albee’s popular Three Tall Women, inspired by his adoptive mother, sometimes seemed to be.”
Brantley adds, “[Baby] is far more abstract, and its characters have the one-size-fits-everyman shapes of commedia dell’arte figures. They may describe events that belong to specific pasts. But as always in Mr. Albee’s plays, nothing that is remembered can be relied upon as accurate. The past is not only a different country; it is also one that can never be successfully mapped.
“Ghost & Spice first read this play about a year ago. We were all entranced by it, and held a lengthy discussion about it afterward. What was it about? What did certain aspects signify? What made it so emotionally compelling? We decided right then and there that we wanted to take a stab at exploring the multi-layered script.”
She adds, “I like Albee’s perspective on the world. He sees things in a knowledge-vs.-innocence way, pitting those who know against those who don’t. In this play, we see two people with vast experience instruct two innocents on the lessons of life. Albee’s wit and master dialogue make his plays unexpectedly poignant and effective.”
She wanted to direct The Play About the Baby because “I felt the subject matter was intriguing and universal. I wanted to explore the themes in the play, and have always been drawn to stories of relationships between older and younger people.”
The show’s creative team includes lighting designer: Jeff Alguire, lighting consultant Steve Tell, costume consultant Joe Brack, and fight choreographer Heather Hackford.
“We staged the play in the round, [which is] challenging enough, but [we] felt the predatory nature of the play supported this choice. The audience is extremely close to the staging, submerging them in the action.
“The most challenging aspect of the rehearsal process,” the director claims, “was delving into the meaning of the play — deciphering the absurd script, and coming to a decision as an ensemble of what we wanted to ultimately convey to the audience.”
She adds, “As always with G&S Productions, [we have] a minimal set. The script calls for two chairs, and that’s what we have.”
“The lighting is also simple, illuminating the playing space, with general cues of lights up and lights down.” She adds, “We enhanced the theme of youth vs. maturity by putting Boy and Girl in pajamas and Man and Woman in suits — there are no changes.”
She warns Triangle theatergoers that “The Play About the Baby contains adult situations and nudity.”
Ghost & Spice Productions presents The Play About the Baby Thursday-Saturday, Feb. 24-27 and March 3-5 and 10-12, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, Feb. 27 and March 6, at 2 p.m. at the Common Ground Theatre, 4815B Hillsborough Rd., Durham, North Carolina. $14 ($12 students and seniors). 919/698-3870 or http://www.ghostandspice.com/. Common Ground Theatre: http://www.cgtheatre.com/.