Rivendell Theatre is coming to the end of its first season in its new home on Chicago's North Side; it now inhabits a lovely, intimate storefront where the audience is but a few feet from the actors. I haven't seen all the shows there this year, but the problem with the current production, "The Electric Baby," is much the same as the problem with the first show I saw in this space last year, "Falling: A Wake." Too much is overplayed.
That's a shame, because Stefanie Zadravec's play is an especially fragile piece. Set in Pittsburgh, where it premiered last year to much critical acclaim, this mostly expressionistic 90-minute play (which not been produced in Chicago before) is about the connections that emerge between people in different walks of life who come into contact with each other unexpectedly, mostly as a consequence of loss. One is put in mind of the 2004 Paul Haggis movie, "Crash."
Penned by a writer who had been through some difficult experiences herself, "The Electric Baby" is poignant not least because moments of loss and suffering are precisely when we do find our normal social pathways taking different turns. After an accident, say, one meets nurses, fellow patients, ambulance drivers. And, as this play charts, one also can find out new things about a spouse or a partner whom one thought one knew — perhaps, say, an unknown relationship is revealed. And when we feel guilty or distressed, or when we're in pain, we often find we have more in common with fellow sufferers, or fellow survivors, than with those in what we thought was our usual peer group. Zadravec's play, which looks at what happens after a woman steps out in a road and causes a taxi cab to swerve, is about all these things.
But the fragility of the piece comes with its heavy metaphoric weight. The play begins with a Romanian woman (Kathy Logelin, who is not ideally cast) staring into a crib — wherein lies the electric baby who will later offer balm to all — dispensing some age-old solipsisms and truisms. That can be sweet and moving — or it can feel like the manifestation of a too-familiar symbol of the Eastern European truth teller at work. The same applies to the African cab driver, Ambimbola (Lionel Gentle), who has to be fully credible lest he turn into one of those over-sentimentalized, mystical black men who prop up the deeper themes of many such plays. And then there's a part-time hooker with a yearning spirit — Rozie, played by Amanda Powell. One has seen that type before; for such a character to work, she has to be portrayed fully against type.
In director Tara Mallen's earnest production, the scenes with these self-consciously portentous characters are all a tad too broad for us to fully believe in them. It's not that actors like Powell, who has real zest and promise, are totally off base, it's more that their performances aren't scaled right for such a tiny theater, and not enough attention was paid to the nitty-gritty of truthful detail which, although one might not think it, is all the more crucial in a play so heavy on myth and symbol.
Both the play and this production are on firmer ground with the middle-aged couple at the heart of all the trouble, played here by Meighan Gerachis and H.B. Ward. Gerachis' Helen has real pain (in which we can believe) and Ward's Reed has secrets, which he hides in the way middle-aged men do, in the thickets of gruff denial. In this scenes — and in a few others — you sense some of the truth hidden away in a play from a young writer that really needs careful, gentle handling.
When: Through June 22
Where: Rivendell Theatre, 5779 N. Ridge Ave.
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
Tickets: $30 at 773-334-7728 or rivendelltheatre.org