Expecting Isabel, Lisa Loomer's play about a couple struggling with infertility, has been floating around the country since 1998, only 20 years after Louise Joy Brown, the first I.V.F. baby, was born. We're now close to 40 years removed from that scientific milestone, and the story of Miranda and Nick is still as relevant as ever. Unfortunately, Loomer's comedic spin on the painstaking process (now running on the Barrow Group's mainstage) hasn't capitalized on all of this time to tease more out of what amounts to an irreverent play-by-play of everything that can go wrong for child-seeking couples.
We first meet Miranda (Myra Thibault), who stands centers stage and introduces herself (using the play's storytelling trope of direct address) as "not a 'happy' woman." In fact, she's suffered from "unhappiness" since childhood. Her husband Nick (Alex Correia), on the other hand, has always loved his big Italian family and sees the world through rose-colored glasses. Their marriage is a classic case of opposites attracting, and it seems to be working out for them — Thibault playing Miranda as a whip-smart but world-weary pragmatist , balancing Correia's lackadaisical yet caring charm. Miranda is a 37-year-old condolence-card scribe while Nick is a 40-year-old struggling artist for whom a paycheck is secondary to his craft. It's a fine system for two unburdened adults, but that careful balance is thrown for a loop when Nick tosses out the idea of having a child.
Miranda is lukewarm to the idea at first, but after wrapping her head around the prospect of motherhood, she dives in headfirst. A few months of no luck leads the couple to the fertility section of the bookstore. A few more months of no luck leads them to a fertility doctor (Myles O'Connor playing the caricature of a bedside-manner-less physician). Dozens of hormone injections and tens of thousands of dollars later, Nick and Miranda are still childless, only now their marriage is on the rocks. And we still have an entire second act to go — where we slog through every possible pitfall that the adoption process brings.
If Loomer's intent was to give her audiences a taste of the fatigue that sets in for desperate couples like Nick and Miranda, she succeeds. But laying the pieces of this exhausting battle in chronological order is not enough to carry a two-act play. Like a lost-in-space movie deprived of subtext, the piece shrinks to merely a sequence of events that go wrong until one finally goes right. In a time when reproductive rights, health insurance, and nontraditional family planning are some of the most contentiously debated topics on the national stage, Loomer has an opportunity to pick apart their intricacies and bring fresh insights to light within a very real and common story. Unfortunately, the only modern touches in Expecting Isabel are references to social media and a quip about Donald Trump.
The play falls back on broad humor and broader characters, which expand to fit the sparsely set stage. Priscilla Shanks plays Miranda's mother Lila as a sitcom-worthy martini-drunk WASP, while Kathryn Kates depicts the traditional intrusive Italian matriarch as Nick's mother Yolanda. Daphna Thier is handed a collection of farcical characters from a crunchy granola member of an infertility support group to Nick and Miranda's potentially rebellious future child Isabel. Her contributions are some of the funniest, but ultimately only confuse the tone of the play, which director Seth Barrish doesn't seem to have nailed down. The third-person storytelling implies some kind of self-awareness that never comes to fruition, silliness that never strikes a balance with sincerity, and substance that is never mined from either side of this dichotomy.
For a play that boldly asserts: "Your nana fought for your birth control. Your mommy fought for your abortion. You fight for the f*cking infertility benefits," Expecting Isabel falls short of expectations.