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The Call

Tanya Barfield's new play tackles some important issues about life at home and abroad.

Kelly AuCoin, Eisa Davis, Crystal A. Dickinson, and Kerry Butler in The Call
(© Jeremy Daniel)
The decision to embrace motherhood. The challenges of cross-cultural adoption. The poor medical conditions in Africa that have led to millions dying of AIDS. Tanya Barfield is to be commended for not just thinking about such heady subjects, but confronting them head-on in her new play, The Call, a coproduction of Playwrights Horizons and Primary Stages now on view at the Peter Jay Sharp Theatre. But one wishes Barfield's treatment of these thought-provoking topics were handled with a bit more depth and finesse than they are in this almost-too-short two-act play.

Indeed, most of the show's entire first scene is devoted to a seemingly endless story about a recent safari taken by African-American lesbian couple Rebecca (Eisa Davis) and Drea (Crystal A. Dickinson) before their white best friends, Annie (Kerry Butler) and Peter (Kelly AuCoin), drop the news that they have decided to adopt. As we soon learn, the long-married couple has struggled through years of trying to get pregnant, complete with numerous miscarriages and infertility treatments. While they've made a deal with a woman in Arizona, they almost inexplicably change their plan and quickly settle on adopting an African baby — a decision that has added significance because Peter spent a brief period volunteering in Africa with Rebecca's now-dead brother, David.

Rebecca, played with a quiet intelligence by Davis, reacts positively to the decision. However, the more outspoken and occasionally tactless Drea, brought to vivid life by Dickinson, takes Annie to task for not seeing how hard it might be for a white woman to understand what it means to raise a black child. Soon enough, though, it is Rebecca who briefly becomes Annie's antagonist once she discovers the child in question may be as old as four, which means the young girl may have behavioral issues or even a disease. It doesn't take Annie long to reconsider her options — including giving up the idea of motherhood completely.

Intriguingly — if too conveniently — Barfield throws another character into the mix: Annie and Peter's new neighbor, Alemu (the superb Russell G. Jones), an African immigrant who seems unusually invested in Annie's decision for reasons that become much clearer late in the second act. Still, after Alemu finishes a rather long-winded allegorical tale and then barks at Annie: "You want a child from Africa, but you do not want Africa," the words sting with a dose of hard-spoken truth.

Under Leigh Silverman's sensitive direction, Butler deftly navigates Annie's frequent emotional swings, even when the character goes from cheeriness to despair in 60 seconds flat. (In real life, Butler is the mother of two adopted African daughters, which may also account for her believability in the role.) AuCoin is consistently excellent and often heartbreaking, especially in the moment when Peter finds himself essentially left out of a life-changing decision. He and Davis also expertly handle the very difficult scene in which the long-unspoken truth about David's death suddenly comes into the open. In fact, the Peter-Rebecca-David story feels a bit shoehorned into The Call and could probably have been the subject of its own play.

Still, whatever the work's shortcomings, it's never a bad thing to leave the theater thinking about the problems of the world at large and looking at your own neighbors in a new light.