Chicago Cooperative Stage

The program for Melissa, While She Sleeps informs us that “The entire action [of the play] transpires in the thoughts and dreams of a newborn baby.” But no infant could be guilty of the pretentious pseudo-whimsy that permeates this script–unless she’d been force-fed a steady diet of bad Edwardian children’s poetry while still in the womb.

I can’t remember when I’ve seen a production so at odds with its own intentions. A subscription-season brochure for the Bucktown-based Chicago Cooperative Stage claims of Donald Abramson’s verse play: “It gently reminds us that the precious lives entrusted to our care are ours to cherish, teach and protect but ultimately they belong to those tiny sleeping children.” But the real, unintended theme of Melissa is the way adult society projects its own emotional and cultural baggage onto the unformed personalities of its infants.

Melissa is visited, while she sleeps, by an assortment of real and fantasy figures who will help shape her life: her mother, father, grandparents, and an uncle or two; her attending nurse, teachers, schoolmates; her own husband-to-be and the children they will produce; a “wicked fairy,” a Nordic earth goddess, an astrologer, and the entire Social Security Administration for good measure. These numerous personages are played by a six-person cast under the playwright’s direction; several of the actors are individually quite good, but all suffer from the consistent stiltedness of the poetic monologues Abramson gives them to speak. This is the sort of script in which a father asks, “What can we do more?” instead of “What more can we do?”; a toastmaster refers to “potables” instead of drinks so that he can make a rhyme with “notables”; a person is described as silent “like a sponge that’s swollen full”; and a woman meditating on the miracle of childbirth utters a particularly familiar thought, and then says: “If that is a cliche, well, amen / Sometimes they’re the truest truths.” Sometimes they’re just cliches.

The archness of Abramson’s poetry wouldn’t be so bothersome if it led us to an actual understanding of Melissa. But though we learn some things about her family history and her future (she will grow up to have long hair, a knack for the violin, an anonymous male admirer who writes her love poetry in amphibrachic tetrameter, and a son who dies in battle), and though, we are told a great deal about the linguistic roots of her name (it means bee, an all too obvious fertility symbol here), the person Melissa remains as unreal to us as the plastic baby doll used to portray her. What Abramson gives us is not an understanding of who Melissa is but how all these other people react to her; unfortunately their reactions–mostly along the lines of sentimentalized awe at the mystery of life–are too uniform to be of much interest after about 20 minutes or so. The conscientiously philosophical tone of the material soon smothers any of the real sense of wonder that the subject is due.

There is one sequence toward the middle of the second act that is suddenly, startlingly different from the rest of the production. It’s a monologue by Melissa’s son about war and death, beautifully delivered by Shawn Durr. Effectively aided by David Gurdian’s lighting, Durr creates the unsettling, gripping illusion of shifting before our eyes between body and spirit, between living and dying. The moment is so powerful that it seems to come from another play (a notion reinforced by the fact that the scene has very little to do with the rest of the show’s insistent focus on Melissa). In any case, it’s a moment that should be salvaged and put to better use elsewhere.

Besides Durr’s impact in this sequence, Melissa offers strong performances by Rhonda Patterson as the baby’s mother, spacy and exhilarated from the experience of childbirth, and by David Welsh, an actor of genuine presence in a variety of roles ranging from grandfather to toy bear. Not even the estimable Welsh, though, can pull off the ludicrous Mr. Sandman routine in which he sprinkles “fairy dust” on the sleeping doll.

Though surely created with the sincerest of intentions, Melissa, While She Sleeps is all too likely to have the effect of a lullaby on its audience.