Amazing how people can talk themselves out of doing the right thing. Mix a heap of overthinking and a dash of inertia and you can warp morality into anything that fits your interest or mood. Why, I can’t give that homeless fellow a quarter. That would encourage a culture of entitlements.
That conflict of altruism and its discontents is played out on an international scale in The Call, Tanya Barfield’s new adoption drama, currently getting an enjoyable, if surprisingly unfocused, production by Theater J at the Atlas Performing Arts Center.
Nice, upper-class, progressive, youngish white couple Annie (Tessa Klein) and Peter (Jonathan Feuer) have tried for a child so long, and with so many terrible setbacks both physical and bureaucratic, that their marriage is straining under the weight of broken expectations. Denied a hoped-for Arizonan infant for unspecified reasons, Annie and Peter turn their eyes global as they discuss at length the politics and social optics of adopting from the various continents. Filled with the altruistic spirit, Annie yearns to rescue an infant from Africa. Peter, who actually spent time on that continent as an aid worker, acquiesces.
Peter and Annie are reluctantly supported in their quest by their newly married friends Drea (Kelly Renee Armstrong) and Rebecca (Joy Jones). New neighbor, and African immigrant, Alemu (Bru Ajeuyitsi) also shows enthusiastic support for the endeavor as well. When an adaption is finally approved Annie’s dream infant turns out to be a toddler…. or is she closer to school-aged? Suddenly Annie isn’t rescuing an infant, a blank slate on which she can imprint a relatively perfect maternal bond, but a walking, talking child. A child with memories and culture that Annie fears she could never fully supplant. Suddenly, Annie is faced with the potential limits of her own altruism, and the rationalizations begin.
“You want a child from Africa, but you do not want Africa,” interjects Alemu, who had latched on the couple’s quest as an opportunity to perhaps assuage his own guilt at being unable (unwilling?) to return to that continent himself.
Tessa Klein does fine and detailed work as the conflicted mother to (may)be, though Barfield’s plot requires her Annie to go off of on pointedly racial tangents that seem otherwise out of character and seem more like perfunctory drama bombs meant to incite conflict during several lengthy, chatty dinner party scenes.
The Call is one of those plays about relatively privileged people whose lives are tangentially affected by someone else’s tragedy. The adoption plot’s real conflict is largely internal, because there is virtually no doubt that Annie can adopt a child from almost anywhere she wants, eventually. What seems at most at risk here is Annie’s perception of her own goodness. Relatable sure; only sociopaths are absolutely convinced of their own righteousness. But that’s a pretty good problem to have, all told. Meanwhile, across the world, a child waits, potentially surrounded by more tangible dangers.
The Call hits a lot of typical domestic drama story beats. Multiple characters have the now-de rigueur tragic secrets, most of which come to a head towards the end in a ten-minute sprint of dark revelation and betrayal. Few of these have direct impact on the central story, aside from making perfectly nice people suddenly despise each other and exposing the now somewhat-clichéd limits of the liberalism of the privileged classes. But that’s how domestic dramas are supposed to end these days, awash with verbal bloodshed and exposed hypocrisies.
But then the play surprised me, ending on a note of grace I wasn’t expecting and which mostly redeemed the contrivances of the preceding hour. With a largely strong cast, featuring especially good supporting work from Armstrong and Ajeuyitsi, and solid direction from Theater J’s reliably sharp new Acting Artistic Director Shirley Serotsky, The Call is a perfectly serviceable piece of contemporary drama. However, Barfield tosses in too many subplots and forced interpersonal conflicts in an attempt to artificially raise the stakes. This actually drains the play of its passion and distracts focus from the potentially powerful story of Annie’s quest: discovering that it is one thing to fiercely claim to want to be a parent, it’s another to act like one.
The Call by Tanya Barfield . Directed by Shirley Serotsky . Featuring Tessa Klein, Jonathan Feuer, Joy Jones, Kelly Armstrong and Bru Ajueyitsi . Set design: Tim Jones . Costume design: Aryna Petrashenko . Sound design: Palmer Hefferan . Lighting design: Garth Dolan . Props design: Samina Veith . Production Stage Managers: Kate Kilbane, Roy A. Gross . Produced by Theater J . Reviewed by Ryan Taylor.