We haven't seen the baby at the center of Rachel Axler's provocative play Smudge, but we're willing to bet it's unlike any other baby we've ever seen. That's because it (yes, "it" is the appropriate term here) isn't quite a baby. It's more of a ... thing. A thing with appendages that aren't quite arms or legs, and just one big eye in the middle of its ... ah, middle.
Axler's story centers on Nick and Colby, the new parents of an extremely deformed infant. (The play takes its title from the image the couple see on their baby's sonogram. They don't see a baby, they see a smudge.) The two characters have very different reactions to their newborn. Nick tries to treat it like a normal baby. Colby doesn't even want to look at it. (Zachary Lewis and Jennifer Gilbert star as Nick and Colby, with Chuck Hutchison rounding out the cast as Pete, Nick's brother.)
The Landing Theatre Company's Artistic Director David Rainey directs the show. (Theater fans might recognize him as a longtime member of the Alley Theatre company.) He says, "I [think it's] a really wonderful story about parenthood. We all have expectations about what it's going to be like to be a parent. This is a story about what you do when those expectations aren't met. Do you have the resolve to still love the child the way that you would the child you expected?"
"Nick and Colby have an extreme situation of a child that is far from normal and is not really responsive. So they aren't getting the things they expected; they aren't getting the love and the smiles and the giggles. Colby feels very guilty about it all. She thinks that she might have done something to cause the baby's condition. She has to come to terms with that guilt and with the reality of the situation. It's a fascinating journey to watch," Rainey tells Art Attack. "It's also very funny."
Wait a minute - funny? A mother cutting the arms and legs off baby clothes because her baby doesn't actually have any arms or legs sounds grotesque, not funny. "That's what's wonderful about this play," says Rainey. "Some of the moments are grotesque, some are shocking, and some are shockingly funny. A lot of times you're laughing at things you really shouldn't be laughing at."
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Rainey says Smudge is a challenging play, not only for the audience but also for the actors. To meet that challenge he had to find the right cast. "A lot of it had to do with chemistry. Nick and Colby needed to be a couple that you could believe was married. I think we got the right people in Zachary [Lewis] and Jennifer [Gilbert]."
As for his role as director, Rainey says it's not as mysterious as it might seem. "You follow the clues that are in the script. The key thing for me when I direct is that people feel comfortable with the choices. Then we start making discoveries about the play. 'Now that I can see that, this is the other thing that's going on in that scene.' Then we add that layer to it. I'm asking them to go to really honest places. I'm asking them to make choices that are firmly seeded in reality, but that are complicated and sometimes difficult to get to."
Rainey admits that while comedies are standard summer theater choices, there's nothing standard about Axler's Smudge. "This marks the type of company we want to be. The days of old summer stock are gone. We're trying to do great American theater. We're not really looking for fluff."
The Landing Theatre Company's production of Smudge runs at 8 p.m. Fridays, Saturdays, with an industry night performance on Monday, July 23. The show continues through July 28. Performances are at the O'Kane Theatre on the third floor of the University of Houston/Downtown, One Main Street. For information, visit the theater company's website or call 713-487-5634. Pay-what-you-can to $15.