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The family that prays together stays together, Father Patrick Peyton once said, or was said to have said. And the family that prays together while huddled in a bathtub for shelter from the Biblical storm that’s dismantling their house?
The Mysteries of Faith is the theme of Clare Barron’s spooky and insoluble Baby Screams Miracle, making its regional premiere at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in a production featuring three of Woolly’s standout players. It’s meditative and plotless, following a tri-generational family of five as they try to keep calm through a violent, days-long storm that has knocked out electricity to their home in rural Washington state.
Nowhere on Washington (D.C.) stages is the world ending more frequently than at Woolly, and nowhere are the ensembles playing out our final hours stronger. This is by my accounting at least the fourth show wherein real-life spouses Kate Eastwood Norris and Cody Nickell have been cast as a couple; they’re magnetic individually, but better together. They appeared to have a great time antagonizing one another as Kate and Petruchio in director Aaron Posner’s Deadwood-inspired 2012 Taming of the Shrew at the Folger. But their work here is in the minor key of their performances in playwright Posner’s Chekhov remix Stupid Fucking Bird at Woolly a year later and in Studio Theatre’s Animal two years after that. (Bird, like Baby, was directed by Woolly artistic director Howard Shalwitz.)
This is not the euphoria of sexual longing and romance; it’s the reality of sharing a checking account and a bathroom. Their characters, Carol and Gabe, are committed to their faith and their marriage. They have a grade-school-aged child, Kayden, and Carol is pregnant with another. Cynthia (Caroline Dubberly, vulnerable and persuasive), the daughter they had too young and put up for adoption, has temporarily rejoined them and is now great with child herself. Barbara, Carol’s mother (Woolly company member Sarah Marshall), lives with them, too. Mia and Caroline Rilette—the fourth-grader daughters of Round House Theatre artistic director Ryan Rilette—are alternating nightly in the role of Kayden. I saw Mia perform, and she was persuasive in a way that kid actors rarely are, like she’d internalized the downbeat mood.
In Barron’s blurry telling, there’s no long-buried secret to be excavated by a weekend of fraying nerves; just a persuasive portrait of a loving family under pressure—one inclined to interpret acts of god as, well, Acts of God. It’s a tribute to Barron’s writing that she can take a scenario as sitcom-trite as one partner’s inability to comply with the other’s request for some dirty talk and steer it someplace moving and unexpected. Or maybe the credit belongs to Norris and Nickell, who somehow convey both that they love one another and that they’re a little surprised they’ve managed to stay together.
Shalwitz spent a couple of years puzzling over how to stage Barron’s tempest before landing on the solution of combining impressionistic video projections with a series of dollhouse-scale models to depict the house in its various stages of ruin. (James Kronzer designed the set; the videos are by Jared Mezzocchi.) Norris and Nickell even fuss with the intact model of their own home in an opening that finds them praying together before bed.
I thought of the eerie moment in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining when Jack Nicholson gazes down at the miniature replica of the hedge maze outside his window and sees his wife and child hiding within it. But the film with which Baby Screams Miracle shares a deeper kinship is Jeff Nichols’ 2011 psychological thriller Take Shelter, about a man haunted by premonitions of an apocalyptic storm and his family’s attempt to pull him back from the brink of madness. I don’t know what that film means, but I know it casts a potent spell. The same goes for Baby Screams Miracle.
At Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company to Feb. 26. 641 D St. NW. $20–$79. (202) 393-3939. Woollymammoth.net.