Someday Productions LLC and Pillow Talking are pleased to present the following review of THE CALL at TheaterWorks Hartford
Through June 19th
There are three fundamental things that define me: my valuable and varied relationships with others (my husband, my family, my friends); my vital and rewarding role as a mother (and stepmother); and my passion about the field of psychology which spills over into everything from my aforementioned personal life to my professional life (writing, directing, teaching, among other pursuits). When I have the opportunity to see an artistic work which proffers these key elements in an exquisitely written, impeccably and creatively directed, and effortlessly performed theatrical production, I’m truly awestruck – and that’s precisely what happened at Hartford’s TheaterWorks’ The Call.
The Call is a dynamic, engaging, affecting, and relevant story which dares to address provocative social and political issues surrounding interracial and international adoption, implicit attitudes related to race and culture, as well as homosexuality, marital relationships, and other plights of middle-class America. Playwright Tanya Barfield skillfully penned vibrant and believable characters on the page – and in the capable hands of veteran director Jenn Thompson, they became distinct, three-dimensional personalities who have you alternately laughing and crying, and whose lives you continue to contemplate long after the lights go up.
Annie and Peter, a white couple nearing middle age, have long been dealing with the torturous matters of infertility. The side effects of medication, not to mention the emotional roller coaster of failed IVF treatments have left Annie a depressive wreck; but it’s not all about her, as her husband and partner in the process is experiencing his own profound sorrow – and it is one that can be lonely and isolating for a man. They have decided to shelve treatments and pursue adoption, and while they try to remain positive, they prepare for every potential disappointment.
Best friends to Annie and Peter and newly married couple Rebecca and Drea (they are black and lesbians) cannot contain their enthusiasm for their friends’ new pursuits into parenting, which are met mostly with joy when they ultimately choose African adoption. While they gently chide them about the differences in styling the hair of a black child versus a white child, it appears to be all in fun when they offer their services as Aunties of the daughter-to-be.
Once it has been decided and everything is in place, Annie and Peter sit back (as patiently as possible) and wait.
And then the CALL comes…
The play goes on to explore many of the possible issues new parents may confront – some issues related solely to adoption or to international and third-world adoption (unknown genetic predispositions, disease and illness, trauma, early separation from biological parents, and the often-resulting and very real problem of attachment disorders); as well as other issues that in truth, can confront both adoptive and biological parents – realizing that we all never can know what we are going to get.
Ultimately, the story becomes one of choices – challenging choices. Annie and Peter suddenly are faced with a grave decision because there are more potential complications than they had anticipated. Annie is someone with tremendous attention to detail, someone who makes no decision without researching, pondering pros and cons, and without the utmost certainty. But there are no assurances. With the support of Rebecca and Drea, and some wise words from an African neighbor Alemu, the pair attempts to plow through the quagmire of right and wrong, black and white, and the not-so-simple question many parents ask, Do we have what it takes?
“You want a child from Africa, but you don’t want Africa,” Alemu tells Annie. Annie and Peter had wished for a newborn, but then had to consider the possibility of an older child. In truth, there can be severe consequences to adopting an older child who has not been nurtured. Africa for their child could have meant an unfavorable, scarred emotional history, one not easily mended by love alone. What happens next, you’ll have to see to find out.
TheatreWorks is an intimate venue, ideal for this kind of performance, with the audience permitted to feel as if they are a part of this other world. Thompson directs the piece so tightly and effectively, able to draw emotion and depth from each character. She also crafted unique devices between scene changes which allowed Annie and her personal angst to remain the focal point at all times.
The entire cast of The Call was genuinely a dream to watch. Annie, played with such authenticity by Mary Bacon, brought me to tears more times than I could count. Finding out after the show that both Thompson and Bacon adopted children from Ethiopia proves not only how art imitates life, but how one of an artist’s true gifts is the ability to bring one’s own truth to a production.
Peter, played brilliantly by Todd Gearhart is the loving and supportive husband, stoic through the tough times, but also fallible, and dealing with his own anguish as the pair rides the roller coaster of uncertainty and would-be parenthood.
While the story centers on Annie and Peter, actresses Jasmin Walker as Rebecca and Maechi Aharanwa as Drea are forces to be reckoned with. They are the at-times amusing epitome of when opposites-attract, but always are the warm and wise friends to the protagonists, providing them with balance and food-for-thought. Walker takes the softer approach, yet brings energy and color (pun intended?) to every conversation while Aharanwa is saucy, sharp-tongued, and tells the truth to a fault.
But as everyone in entertainment can tell you there are no small players – each and every role is integral to the story as a whole. In The Call that is no better illustrated than by the role of Alemu, so deftly played by Michael Rogers. When Alemu takes the stage, he is captivating. Rogers is so wonderful, you cannot help but think he IS Alemu and he says what no one else does in a way no one else can.
Tremendous shout-outs go to Luke Hegel-Cantarella for set design (I’m always impressed by the details and his sets as well as the shifts between scenes were flawless); Tracy Christensen for costume design; Rob Denton for lighting; Toby Algya for sound. It goes without saying that casting was top-notch, handled by McCorkle Casting Ltd. Kudos to Bridget Sullivan as production manager and Haley Wilson as stage manager. And Artistic Director Rob Ruggiero has done it again. Thank you for bringing sharp, intelligent, and thought-provoking theatre to Hartford. We are grateful for your keen choices and look very forward to our next visit to TheaterWorks!
The Call by Tanya Barfield is like a magic trick – pick a theme any theme and at the end we’ll show you the one that you picked. There are so many salient issues in this play: racism, adoption, gay marriage, lesbianism, AIDS, third-world issues, infertility, lost love, and others that I will wake up at two in the morning and remember.
What do you have if you take a play with so many themes and mix it with the foresight of an artistic director like Rob Ruggiero, the vision of a veteran director like Jenn Thompson and a splendid professional cast? You have TheaterWorks’ production of The Call – a socially and politically charged tour de force which is humorous, topical and, most important of all, relatable.
The plot is deceptively simple – at least on the surface. An infertile couple desperately want to have a child and eventually decide to adopt a baby from Africa. They are supported by their lesbian newlywed friends (who happen to be black) and their quirky neighbor next door (who happens to be from Africa). The plot thickens, however when the couple discovers that the child is older than they’d been told. Just as the couple resigns themselves to the fact of raising a two-and-a-half-year-old, they receive a picture of the little girl that clearly shows she is actually at least four years old. All hell breaks loose as suppressed emotions and doubts rise to the surface. As the neighbor tells the would-be mother at one point, you want an African child, but not Africa.
I believe that one of the greatest compliments an artist can receive is an acknowledgment from a fellow artist of wanting to have created the art by him or herself. Damn, as a director and playwright, I wish I had written and directed The Call. TheaterWorks’ production is tightly crafted and directed. The blocking, staging and pacing are perfect. The second act hits home like a lightning bolt, tying up all of the issues and questions left unaddressed in the first act. Indeed, the play is, in many ways, a mystery, with clues and Easter eggs dropped liberally in act one only to be neatly resolved through a rising denoument in act two. If my wife (who also is my co-reviewer) wasn’t such a stickler about spoilers, I would give away the ending – but I can’t. You will just have to experience it for yourself.
Director Jenn Thompson has put together an amazing cast. Mary Bacon is spot-on as Annie, the tortured and conflicted mother-to-be. She injects her character with both strength and vulnerability in just the right dosage. She has real chemistry with her co-star Todd Gearhart who plays Peter, her husband. Tall, dark, and handsome, Gearhart plays to perfection the supportive and at times frustrated partner and father-to-be. During one explosive moment when he declares that it’s not just about his wife’s angst in not being able to bear children and how many times he wished he could be pregnant, I felt his pain. (The conversation he has with his wife about who walks the dog in the morning hit many a familiar chord with me!) Maechi Aharanwa and Jasmin Walker as respectively, Drea and Rebecca, are wonderful as the lesbian married couple and best friends to Peter and Annie. I was an Entourage fan and used to think that most of the dialogue was ad-libbed as it seemed so real, and then was surprised as hell to find that it was a very tightly scripted show. I felt the same way about the banter back and forth between all of the characters, but especially between Ms. Aharanwa and Ms. Walker – it seemed so real, spontaneous and natural. And what about Michael Rogers as Alemu, the quirky neighbor? He had barely more than a cameo in act one yet stole most of act two. He was simply enchanting. There’s a scene in act two where he relates a story to Annie (more of a parable) about how a stepmother could gain the love of her stepchild that was mesmerizing. I had chills by the end of it.
Jenn Thompson’s direction is stunning. I can’t wait to see what she does with her next project. (She will be directing Bye Bye Birdie, a complete 180-degree spin from The Call.)
The play cannot solve world hunger or the AIDS crisis or infertility or any of the other major topics that are brought up. But, as in any great art, it can make you think about the problems. Yes, the play deals with major-league issues, but does so in a non-didactic, non-preachy, non-bombastic, engaging and even humorous way. So, returning to the magic trick analogy at the beginning of the review, which theme did you pick? You have to answer that one for yourself, but I can guarantee that the theme you picked, like the play itself, will be relatable.