On the way to your seat at The Year of the Baby at Soho Rep, you have to walk on the set, the floor of which is wall-to-wall dirt. If you're wearing good shoes, you'll wish you wore sneakers. Once the play gets underway, however, not only will you forget about your shoes, you'll begin to appreciate the dirt floor for the metaphor that it is: the characters in The Year of the Baby are the dirt poor Americans who live close to its earth. At once filthy from the soiling nature of our society, yet gaining sustenance for growth in its richness, the flowering young characters in this play are seedlings in the American forest of humanity.
Quincy Long's drama with music (it has 14 songs and verges on being a musical drama) introduces us to a very young couple with whom downtown theatergoerscor, for that matter, any theatergoers--may have little contact. Our heroine, Donna (Rebecca Soler) appears so simpleminded that it wouldn't be unfair to call her reality-challenged. When we first meet her, she has "borrowed" a neighbor's baby and sees nothing wrong with keeping it. Meanwhile, she tears up a head of lettuce and drops the shreds in a cardboard box as if the infant inside is a bunny or a turtle. Her slightly more grounded young husband Kenny (Jonathan Mark Woodward) is more interested in his guitar than the baby, but in his laconically comic way, at least he advises her to return the child before she gets in to trouble. The advice comes too late. The police come banging on the door and the couple, leaving the baby behind, hit the road in a panic.
So far, the play is amusing in a distant sort of way. The characters are strange but intriguing. The play gets even more bizarre when our two leads stop to hide out at a dingy bungalow motel in the middle of nowhere. The motel's aging owners Luther (Joseph Jamrog) and Martha (Annette Hunt) are even loopier than Kenny and Donna. Nonetheless, the relationship that evolves between these four characters is weirdly funny, not a little scary, and ultimately rather poignant. They become a sort of family that is beyond our usual definition of dysfunctional, but it somehow works for them. A baby enters their lives in a more conventional manner, along with work, responsibility, fear, grief, generosity of spirit, and a good many other elements of life that create the roots through which a family lives and thrives.
The Year of the Baby is a play that is happily full of surprises. The first surprise, if you're not familiar with the location of the theater in which it's playing, is that the Soho Rep is no longer in Soho; it's in Tribeca on Walker Street, just south of Canal. Once inside the theater, the surprises multiply. Characters evolve out of caricatures, and the play never goes where you think it's heading; it's funnier, richer, and far more ambitious in its themes than you have any reason to expect from its opening moments. Its intelligence sneaks up on you, which is very much in keeping with the style and content of the work. We look down on these characters--all of them--at the beginning, but slowly we come to recognize their essential humanity and we eventually embrace them.
In this respect, Stephen Foster's songs of Americana play an important part in the production. At the back of the stage there is a small period parlor in which a couple of musicians play guitar and fiddle. They establish the idea that the play we're seeing is part of an American time-line. The use of this device pays off elegantly at the play's finale.
When you leave the theater, you'll still wish you were wearing sneakers, but the play will stick with you longer than the stains on your shoes. And you'll also remember Jonathan Mark Woodward's exceptional performance as Kenny, noting a skill with comic timing that is a wonder to behold. Rebecca Soler is effective as his semi-addled wife, Joseph Jamrog is hilarious and heartbreaking as Luther, and Tina Stafford and Trevor A. Williams, both playing dual supporting roles, give the play additional color and credibility with their fine work. Only Annette Hunt is a touch over the top in her role as an increasingly crazy old lady.
Daniel Aukin directs The Year of the Baby with a graceful fluidity that is very much in tune with Stephen Foster's music, as well as the highly entertaining and often extremely funny music composed by Maury Loeb.
For those of you who think you may have seen this play in the past, you did--sort of. It was originally presented by Home for Contemporary Theatre and Art in the spring of 1989. This production differs substantially, however, because the text has been rewritten and all 14 songs have been added.