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Fecundity is an awfully big deal at Arena Stage at the moment. The atmosphere is downright moist with sex talk in both of the company’s auditoriums. Glowing spermatazoa and a plump gilded baby float serenely above one stage, and virtually every woman who treads on the bright side of the footlights is either hot and bothered or in a fertility-induced panic.
Men, sad to say, aren’t pulling their weight.
In Arena’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in the Fichlander Theater, Maggie is working all her feminine wiles on Brick, bullying, cajoling, and begging him to come to bed so she can give him an heir. With his washboard stomach and pumped-up physique, her inattentive husband certainly qualifies as a strapping, red-blooded specimen of maledom. Alas, he’s been thinking rather more about a football buddy lately than about his wife. Put him down as distractedable but not willing.
Next door in the Kreeger, in Lisa Loomer’s Expecting Isabel, a conflicted lass named Miranda (Ellen Karas) also has procreation on the braininitially because she fears it, later because she fears remaining childlessbut she has pretty much the opposite of Maggie’s problem. Her hubby, Nick (John Ottavino), is about as gung-ho a babymaker as anyone on the planet, but while he’s giving Miranda all he’s got, it’s apparently not enough. Call him willing but not able.
What’s with this little festival of male inadequacy? Just synchronicity, probablyone of those instructive instances in which theatrical works, when placed in close proximity, cross-pollinate. This sort of synergy was what Arena was seeking when it built the Kreeger Theater back in the 1970s, so it shouldn’t be surprising when it occurs. Still, let’s note for the record that with these two plays, the company to which Zelda Fichandler gave birth is marking the return of feminine leadership after a seven-year hiatus. Note, too, that the balance of the season includes a stage portrait of Georgia O’Keeffe, and a mounting of that wickedest of proto-feminist satires, The Women.
Then let’s stop noting things that place the sexes in opposition and start noting how amusingly Loomer has brought them together in Expecting Isabel, her comically comprehensive look at human conception. Plenty of playwrights have explored the consequences of conceiving children, and more than a few have examined the causes, but few have peered as exhaustively as Loomer at the act itself. Acts, really, since the time-honored baby-making method proves ineffective for Nick and Miranda, and they’re reduced to prowling doctors’ offices in search of help with doin’ what comes natcherly.
“I am not a happy person,” Miranda confides almost as soon as she’s wandered hesitantly onto designer Thomas Lynch’s white disk of a stage. “I had a perfectly happy childhood that I somehow failed to enjoy.”
As delivered by Karas, with lots of timid little gulps between words, this is the sort of one-liner that Sandy Dennis used to stammer with gawky adorability in sexless ’60s sex comedies. But since Expecting Isabel is a decidedly ’90s sex comedyit takes sex itself, not sexiness, as its subjectMiranda is no helpless cutie in a negligee. While she may not have raised the issue of having kids, once Nick has placed the idea in her lap, as it were, she is bound and determined to give it her full attention. Heading for the bookstore, she researches everything from baby names to infertility specialists. And when months go by and there’s still no bun in the oven, she remains indefatigable, heading back for books on adoption. When, after months of trying, Nick starts to despair, you chalk it up to exhaustion. When Miranda begins to lose the confidence it has taken her so much effort to gain, it’s something morea whole world of expectations seems to be crashing down around their heads.
Now, I should mention that I’m breezing through this chronicle a good deal more rapidly than the playwright does. As in The Waiting Room, a blistering comedy in which Loomer surveyed the impact that fashion and medicine have had on women throughout history, she approaches her subject matter in Expecting Isabel with an exhaustiveness bordering on overkill. There’s undeniably an embarrassment of comic riches in her scriptstand-up routines, medical send-ups, family sketches, group-therapy skitsand they’re so briskly staged by Douglas C. Wager that nearly every one of them lands guffaws. But if there aren’t many moments that go laughless, there are still too many moments overall, of which quite a few seem mere variations on established themes.
I wasn’t actually keeping score, but if memory serves, Loomer’s protagonists try at least three alternative methods of getting Miranda pregnant after they give up on sex, head to the doctor three times to be told those methods aren’t working, then approach multiple adoption specialists who introduce them to three unsuitable pregnant teens before finding a birth mother who might actually work out. Along the way they also attend three family get-togethers and three support groups, in each of which they’re just one of three couples competing for audience attentionall of which takes roughly three hours. Eliminate one of everything, and the evening would necessarily feel less repetitive. It would also zero in a little more clearly on the central relationship, which gets lost in the shuffle for a while in Act 2.
Which is not to say that deciding what should go will be a snap, especially with Arena’s cast pushing Loomer’s zaniness to the rafters and a few feet beyond. In addition to the two leads, there are six able clowns onstage, all of whom morph into multiple characters so deftly and with such complete transformations through wigs and attire (courtesy of costumer David C. Woolard) that at the curtain call you half-expect another 12 actors to come out for bows. Brigid Cleary’s perpetually sozzled society mom and Nick Olcott’s unctuous fertility specialist are among the most vivid of the folks encountered by the central couple, but even characters who only pop in for a line or a sight gag and then disappear tend to do so with flair.
Physically, the production is a tad chilly, as suits the script’s initial emphasis on the clinical aspects of getting pregnant. Lynch’s set, with its clean lines, pop-up tables, gilded floating cherub, and 6-inch glass spermlets swimming on blue, yellow, and white panels, is just right, especially when the spermlets light up in vivid hues provided by lighting designer Allen Lee Hughes. When the emphasis shifts from the physical difficulty of making babies to the emotional difficulty of adopting them, the setting feels less in sync with the script, but by that time, the production has effectively instilled in patrons the mind-set of the characters, and every bulge onstagefrom the neon edging on a set panel to the curves of molded plastic chairsseems to suggest pregnancy.
The fracturing of dramatic forms is such an established practice these days that it’s easy to forget how effective a straightforward narrative can be. To those weaned on nonrepresentational entertainments, Olney Theatre’s A Raisin in the Sun will come as something of a wake-up call, and not just because it begins with a mother telling her son to brush the sleep from his eyes.
Lorraine Hansberry’s landmark 1959 dramaabout an African-American family’s dreams of upward mobility and the racism the household encounters when preparing to move into a segregated neighborhoodhasn’t dated nearly as much as one might wish. The concerns facing the Younger family feel alarmingly current, the pressures on its members undimmed. On opening night, when a white character referred to the family offhandedly as “you people,” it was impossible not to recall Ross Perot’s crippling campaign use of that phrase before the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. A murmur of recognition swept through Olney’s audience, as if it had forgotten how pitch-perfect Hansberry’s ear was for the sound of prejudice.
For the most part, Scot Reese’s staging is smart about not underlining such moments. The director makes one misstep, having his leading man (Craig Wallace, a little too much the blowhard in the role made famous by Sidney Poitier) depart from the script at the end of Act 1 to recite the Langston Hughes poem from which the play takes its title. But patrons will likely forgive Reese that trespass into obviousness, since he’s gotten lovely performances from most of his cast. Cathy Simpson and Rebecca Rice are pillars of strength as mothers whose lives revolve around this family, and Deidra LaWan Johnson is a firecracker as the daughter who’s determined to break free of the life that 1950s America has ordained for her. Weakness at the cast’s fringes and a final change of mind that Wallace plays as if it comes out of nowhere don’t substantially diminish the evening’s effect. CP