The cast of Baby Screams Miracle, directed by Howard Shalwitz, at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company.
The cast of Baby Screams Miracle, directed by Howard Shalwitz, at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company.
(© Scott Suchman)

In its latest production, the regional premiere of Baby Screams Miracle, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company creates a horrendous storm, which serves as a metaphor for the many stresses that affect a modern family of five in eastern Washington state. The play's author, Clare Barron, calls this an "American Family Play" only in the sense that it exposes the dark undercurrent of families, which is "made of a million little hurts, grievances, strange dynamics, and you can never quite put a finger on it."

The two main characters are Carol and Gabe, who live with their young daughter, Kayden, in a house in a small town along the Columbia River Gorge. In the first scene, Carol and Gabe are praying together at night. Gabe's prayers are conventional and far-reaching. Carol's prayers are more practical. She asks forgiveness for not answering her e-mails, for instance. They both pray that their shy daughter Kayden will come out of her shell. But their prayers end with a storm that shatters the windows and drops a huge tree limb on the back porch. The next morning Carol's mother, Barbara, and Carol and Gabe's adult daughter, Cynthia, come to check on them and help with the cleanup. Carol and Cynthia are both quite pregnant, although Cynthia's wedding is still in the planning stage.

Throughout Baby Screams Miracle, the storm keeps coming back again and again, until the electricity goes out, there is no clean water at the house, and the family moves to a motel. There they share some moments of unity, praying and laughing together. In the car on the way to civilization, they pass scenes of total destruction. The storm apparently transformed and concentrated itself into a tornado.

The majority of Baby Screams Miracle is circuitous talk, often not revealing anything or leading anywhere. Topics are brought up and then immediately dropped. Cynthia is a nervous wreck, afraid that her fiancé won't marry her. In Cynthia, Barron has done a good job of creating a disconnected, angry and lost character, a person who can't articulate her disaffection. Carol and Gabe are fairly normal, even humorous, characters. Barbara and her granddaughter Kayden are the most sane of the bunch. Reflective Barbara does a lot of remembering.

The acting in Baby Screams Miracle is first-rate. Kate Eastwood Norris plays Carol as an intelligent and calm woman, even when her house is collapsing around her. The fact that she does not freak out is intriguing. Cody Nickell is a stalwart Gabe, frantically attacking the storm on a personal basis at the end, trying to hammer his house into order again and shouting to the wind as though he was doing battle with a god of the elements. Sarah Marshall is cool and unflappable as Barbara, another frontier woman like Carol. Mia Rilette is excellent as Kayden, who seems to be simply young rather than afraid to come out of her shell. Caroline Dubberly is well cast in the thankless role of Cynthia, a hysterical young woman who does not have the access to the heavenly relief that her parents do.

Howard Shalwitz directs with a light hand, allowing the ample humor of the piece to breathe through at all points, while at the same time recognizing the abundant spookiness of the text. The real star of this show is the relentless storm. Set designer James Kronzer uses a small model of the family's house on the stage to give a sense of where the action takes place. After the first round of the storm, there is a huge pine limb on the back porch of the model and branches and leaves all over the stage. At one point, a trampoline blows inside the house.

The full intensity of the storm is captured on a huge screen hanging at the back of the stage, normally showing gently swaying pine trees. During the storm, a video by video designer Jared Mezzocchi shows the trees tossing and turning, glass is shown shattering, a door handle is seen being ripped off a door. Sound designer Palmer Hefferan creates sounds to match the video's events: wind howling, shattering glass, crashing sounds. It's all very credible.

But even the storm can't make up for the lack of a good text. In the final analysis, Baby Screams Miracle is not a solid enough story to make anything but simplistic points. If Barron wants to show that sound and fury can signify nothing, she has certainly done so in Baby Screams Miracle.