Tragedy, like history, often lives on only in the protean afterlife of storytelling, a community-building custom that constantly reshapes our relationship to and understanding of events that seem so clearly defined. Stephanie Zadravec’s The Electric Baby, now running at Red Bank’s Two River Theater, embraces the unique dynamics of storytelling in order to explore the complex constellation of interpersonal connections around one tragic event. In the process, it reexamines any apparent certainty about the ethical connections between strangers.
The story revolves around the aftermath of a Pittsburgh car accident that instantly fuses a number of disparate lives. Married couple Helen (Lizbeth Mackay) and Reed (Steven Skybell) argue on a street corner before Helen storms off into the street in a huff, causing a taxi driven by African immigrant Ambimbola (Oberon K.A. Adjepong) carrying best friends Rozie (Lucy DeVito) and Dan (Nick Lehane) to swerve into a light post. Dan is killed, “Bimbo” the driver is hospitalized, and Reed, Rozie, and Helen are each wracked by varying levels of guilt, anger, and bitterness.
As each thread of the story gradually spins out and eventually coincides, the corner of the stage remains constantly populated by Natalia (Antoinette LaVecchia) in her rocking chair attending a bassinet. The bassinet’s occupant gives the play its title, a baby that “glows like the moon” while kept alive by wires of life support. The strand of the play’s web uniting Natalia and her baby to the characters involved in the accident is not revealed until late in the play, but it seems certain throughout that she and the others will not remain emotionally isolated.
Natalia in fact takes her place in the rocking chair prior to the audience entering Two River’s black box space. She sits silently knitting and occasionally rocking the bassinet as patrons get themselves situated in their seats, and as the lights come down she greets the audience directly, asking playfully who among the crowd is going to annoy everybody with their coughing, who’s the stinky one, and who has forgotten to silence his or her cutesy ringtone. Aside from the ringtone, Natalia has a home remedy for any problem that may present itself. Bad cough? Soak a pair of socks in whiskey and sleep with them on your hands. Body odor? Chill a couple potatoes, then peel and rub under your armpits for a few days. Headache? Sleep with a banana on your forehead. Throughout the evening, Natalia will deliver a trove of folk wisdom to the audience and other characters, all of which is infused with the suggestion of old-world wisdom by her Romanian accent.
Natalia is sometimes chorus, sometimes participant in the play’s action, but her presence underscores this play’s investment in storytelling. Much of the drama of The Electric Baby originates in the characters’ history, revealed to us not through flashbacks, but by layered stories. We learn gradually of the death of Reed and Helen’s daughter and the stress that has put on their marriage, of Bimbo’s and Natalia’s immigration ordeals, of Rozie and Reed’s unexpected connection, and eventually the characters and their lives become fleshed out far beyond the events of one taxi accident. Ultimately, the play interrogates the role of the past in the lives of the present and future, suggesting that the stories which influence and instruct might also oppress.
The play’s network of interpersonal connections is stressed by its beautifully sparse set (designed by Mimi Lien). The stage’s walls and the theater’s entire ceiling are covered with a web of rope, strung in a random pattern, with different strands converging and diverging in various locations around the theater. The set’s simple furniture—a small table, a few chairs, a hospital bed—begin the show suspended in the rope above the stage before being lowered out of the web as needed by the action of the play. The effect dramatizes the seemingly random interconnectedness of lives and ethics in which The Electric Baby is so invested. The same chairs that descend from the web are used for Bimbo’s cab, Helen and Reed’s kitchen table, and a tense lunch between Reed and Rozie: the implication is that these characters share far more than a car accident.
Adjepong’s Bimbo and LaVecchia’s Natalia shine as the play’s emotional touchstones. Their stories reveal both the determination of immigrants following a tattered dream and the complexity of lives marked by suffering. The play’s highlight is a scene where Adjepong and LaVecchia share narration of a revealing story, as the fantasy of a folk tale belies deep humanity. One of course might wish that all the play’s characters were developed as deeply and compellingly as these two, but that is not the case.
As the play’s moving conclusion forces a reassessment of its earlier tension, The Electric Baby becomes like the folk tales so important to its plot, at once instructive and open-ended. A lyrical mediation on shared social experience, the play suggests ultimately that the power of stories is in their constant retelling.