You may think Houston’s had enough with the severe weather, but The Catastrophic Theatre is betting that you’ll willingly walk into the storm of the century with their latest production, Clare Barron’s Baby Screams Miracle.
In Baby Screams Miracle, a persistent, seemingly endless storm of biblical proportions rains down on a religious family in the Pacific Northwest, one already a bit frayed at the seams. The relationship between parents Carol and Gabriel is strained at best, their youngest daughter is a bit weird, and their oldest daughter, Cynthia, long estranged, has made the five-hour drive home after seeing the storm on the news. With the family trapped together by the worsening storm, and the stressors piling on, it’s not long before all manner of tensions are revealed.
Baby Screams Miracle is a family dramedy, one that gracefully walks the line between surreal and familiar. Its characters bleed (literally at times) with flawed humanity, veer often into a world of the grotesque – decapitation, a crushed and amputated foot, and dead animals all make appearances – and are biblically tested to seemingly no end. They are vulnerable, yet oddly resilient. They’re also funny. (And luckily, the cast has an excellent sense of comedic timing.) Barron crafts some painfully insightful and undeniably funny lines (one, for example, is Carol’s early musing on coffee, which she says “gives me the strength to respond to my emails and not be ashamed”).
In thinking about Baby Screams Miracle, it’s worth noting that there’s a fine line between “Barron doesn’t offer up any easy answers,” and “does Barron even know what she’s really writing about?” Ultimately, the line gets crossed in the wrong direction, but somehow it makes for a better production. The play is unsettled, which allows director Jeff Miller to ratchet up and ride the relentless tension, the stress building as we wait for shoe after shoe to drop without even a hint of really where we’re going. Baby Screams Miracle is all about the journey, and just like an extended road trip, trapped in a car with others, the people you’re with make it or break it. Of course, this cast makes it.
The talented ensemble is led by Tamarie Cooper, fearless as a distant and withholding Carol, a woman who wants something she either can’t or won’t articulate. Greg Dean’s Gabriel is mostly doofy dad, dense and oblivious, punctuated with flashes of a man on the verge of a nervous breakdown, one prone to angry outbursts. He is also humorously worse for the wear as the show goes on.
Tasha Gorel gives a knock-out performance as Cynthia, Carol and Gabriel’s angry, insecure daughter. Gorel’s Cynthia is amped up and needy. Negative emotion bubbles up to the surface until it just gushes out in one of the best scenes in the whole play in the unlikeliest of places – on a trampoline, lit by a Jesus candle and glow sticks. Much like the play itself, Cynthia is a character built out of unsteady ground, which Gorel traverses wonderfully.
As the family matriarch, Rebecca Randall’s Barbara is an unyielding presence, loud and defiant, while Rachel Shaw is a scarily convincing child as Kayden. Shaw brings a wide-eyed intensity, almost like a deer in the headlights (an unfortunate analogy for this show) if not for the eerie awareness behind her eyes.
The production’s designers are outstanding, and I can’t tell you how pleasing it is to watch the storm (a relentless, ever-present character in and of itself) come to life. Ryan McGettigan’s set – the focal point of which is a boxy, wooden frame wall with squares of plastic to denote window glass at center stage – takes quite the beating as controlled chaos sweeps through and swirls not only around the set, but around the audience.
With trees lining three walls of the theater, placed behind the audience, shaking, and fans (and leaf blowers) from multiple angles blowing, an unexpectedly immersive experience is created.
McGettigan’s set also serves as a canvas for Tim Thomson’s video designs, which work in tandem with Hudson Davis’s lighting choices. From the word go, an almost disco ball-like effect cast on McGettigan’s wall gives way to a blanket of stars projected along the top, and so it goes, with the two’s work occasionally sharing the space, such as when flashes of light accompany projected bolts of lightning. Sound Designer Shawn St. John, meanwhile, has all our sound needs covered, from the whistle of a teapot and a freezer on the fritz to the rumbles of thunder and roar of the wind.
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There is a world other than the storm, and Macy Lyne’s mismatched and layered costumes go a long way in establishing the grungy, rustic setting, along with the recurring plaid flannels that hint at the play’s Northwest locale.
And the final piece of the puzzle that brings this all together is the contribution from the stage managers, doing yeoman's work all show long. The stage managers appear to not only move set pieces, but man the fans and leaf blowers and throw bricks from offstage. Some of the transitions do take time, as the set has to be not only rearranged but demolished bit by bit, but it’s more than worth it.
Baby Screams Miracle is beautifully executed and the best kind of programming for this time of year – family-centric with a jagged, sharp edge to keep things interesting. You know, the kind of theater Catastrophic has a lock on producing, which is also perfect for this time of year if you happen to be looking for one more thing to be thankful for.
Performances continue at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 2:30 p.m. Sundays at The MATCH, 3400 Main. Through December 15. For more information, call 713-521-4533 or visit matchouston.org or catastrophictheatre.com. Pay what you can; suggested price $40.