Emma’s Child

Victory Gardens Theater

By Carol Burbank

Kristine Thatcher is perhaps best known in Chicago as an actress, appearing most recently in the Goodman’s Arcadia and in the long-running Three Hotels. But she’s written a witty and sentimental play in Emma’s Child, asking many provocative questions about adoption among other subjects: what if the unborn child you plan to claim is born disabled? Based on Thatcher’s personal experience, the play explores the responsibilities and reconciliations of parenting, marriage, and friendship as Jean and Henry Farrell find their adoptive contract disrupted when the child, Robin, is born with inoperable hydrocephaly, or water on the brain. Jean grows deeply attached to Robin, who is unlikely to survive infancy, while Henry immediately distances himself from the sick child and gradually loses touch with his grieving and obsessed wife.

The complexity of their love and grief is finely evoked by David Darlow (who is Thatcher’s husband) and Barbara E. Robertson: they balance the inevitable melodrama of the situation with their irony, intelligence, and humor. Robertson’s Jean is determined and sharp-tongued, an impulsive woman ruled by her emotions and by her loyalty. Henry is a grounding presence, passionate and intellectual, confused by Jean’s seemingly irrational alliance but, as played by Darlow, struggling to make sense of his own feelings of loyalty, betrayal, fear, and love.

The play’s opening scene, and the clarity of the performances, establishes Jean and Henry as a couple whose survival matters. When we first see them they’re squabbling about details while waiting for the initial home visit by the adoption agency. Their unrestrained nervous anger then moves naturally into the laughter of an intimate couple whose friendship is the center of their marriage. As we laugh too at their foibles we invest in them, and it’s this investment that makes a painful, challenging story worth the time and effort, ensuring our attention as we face the play’s ethical and personal questions.

Wisely, Thatcher has surrounded the couple with a fully drawn, eccentric community of medical and social-work professionals who offer a variety of perspectives and some finely crafted comic relief. And under Terry McCabe’s direction the entire cast work together seamlessly: these seem real events unfolding in real places despite the simple, sparse set. Laurence is the snide, cultured, honest nurse who guides Jean through her relationship with Robin; he’s able to plainly state the child’s limits and prognosis but is also aware of his humanity. Tom Mula’s subtle, on-target portrayal of Laurence is a great gift to the play, since he becomes Jean’s partner in Henry’s absence and our link to the practical and medical world of the hospital. Julie Pearl as Mary Jo, the dippy nurse’s aide, is the Gracie to his sarcastic George Burns, perkily offering up heartfelt Valley Girl sentiments and misunderstanding any cultural reference that didn’t air on television after the 1970s. Mary Poole and Rochelle Richelieu deliver solid performances as the distant physician and paranoid administrator who ultimately give Jean the bleakest descriptions of Robin’s future, reflecting the compassionate but uncomprehending institutional perspective.

Henry’s partner during this crisis is his friend Tom, played with hearty bluster by Gary Houston. Tom’s wife has left him, so during a camping trip the two men explore their mutual grief and disappointment in a remarkable scene. Tom’s long monologue about the virtues of birch bark as a natural kindling and Henry’s inspired riff on the recreational habits formed by his Jewish upbringing offer a subtle comedy rooted in the characters. When Henry quotes King Lear on the corruption of women, liberally sprinkling “something-somethings” into Shakespeare’s potent imagery, we see a side of him that’s pensive and iconoclastic. Lightly, Thatcher reveals whole people through well-placed moments.

She’s given the two men a lot to work with in this scene, arguably the center of the play because of its clarity and depth. The two friends mirror each other’s frustrations and needs, challenge each other’s narrowness, and connect in the emotional, acerbic way of old pals who’ve survived the bullshit of youth yet still see themselves as young men who can grow together. At the very least it’s a rare moment in American theater when two men have an extended scene together and don’t fight, talk about sex, or have sex. Darlow and Houston capture the history of the men’s friendship in small gestures and gibes, moving from self-obsessed disconnection into a graceful, self-revealing intimacy as understated as it is powerful. “The one who leaves isn’t necessarily the one who abandons,” says Henry in an unguarded moment, naming one of the play’s main insights. By sharing the less visible moments of betrayal and withdrawal in relationships, Thatcher underlines both the shock of recognizing our complicity in our own losses and our equally unexpected recovery from that shock.

Jean’s bonding with Franny, Tom’s wife, is less interesting. Celeste Williams is a talented actor who did an impressive job as Anita Hill in Unquestioned Integrity, but she doesn’t have much to work with in this role. Franny briefly shares her frustration with Tom’s inertia and her delight in a new and passionate relationship, but mainly she serves as support for her friend. Jean’s primary relationship is with Robin, represented by a realistic-looking doll with a huge, bandaged head and seen in an incubator or immersed in blankets. Robertson gives Robin an almost superhuman presence by focusing on him so intensely that he seems simultaneously the imagined perfect child and the misshapen bundle in her arms. When she focuses this same attention on another actor, Robertson sometimes seems too intense, as if she were about to explode into tears or laughter or some other sudden emotion that can’t be contained by the relationship onstage. But it’s a tension that helps more than it hinders the play: Robertson’s focus is what transforms a doll into a sick child, and a sick child into a miraculous person who briefly pushes us into confronting our prejudice against the “abnormal.”

Emma’s Child is not about the adoption of disabled children, although we see the challenge and wonder of that possibility. It’s a play about relationships tested by a situation with no right answer. Thatcher and Darlow’s personal experience transformed into theater is very specific, taking us on a journey through our opinions and shifting loyalties into a story about people who lose, grieve their losses, and win in the end, simply by loving each other.

Victory Gardens, which has brought us similarly well crafted plays by local talents such as Claudia Allen, Jeffrey Sweet, and Charles Smith, deserves credit for welcoming Thatcher as its newest playwright-in-residence. She is a theatrical voice to be reckoned with.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Jennifer Girard.