Ka-Tet Theatre presents the Chicago premiere of SMUDGE.
A married couple squints at an ultrasound picture trying to determine what their baby looks like. Their discernment continues even after the baby is born. Playwright Rachel Axler goes dark in this parental nightmare. Axler births a baby that is missing limbs and a second eye. She then forces her couple to deal with it. Initially, Scott Allen Luke (dad) bonds with daddy’s girl while Stevie Chaddock Lambert (mom) is repulsed by “it.” Axler’s play is then about the baby transforming in the parents‘ eyes or the parents transforming in the baby’s eye. The true intent is not always clear.
In the director’s notes, Allison Shoemaker writes about the ambiguity of Axler’s work. It’s not a comedy. It’s not a drama. It’s not realism nor fantasy. Shoemaker described being ensnared by its otherness. It’s an honest assessment. SMUDGE is smudged. In its broadest moments, SMUDGE wrestles with value clarification of life. Axler ties in Luke’s job at the Census Bureau in the statistical probability of his abnormal baby. Luke has a mini meltdown to his boss and brother Andrew Marchetti (Pete). The playful Marchetti is clearly intended to be the comedy relief in this drama. Yet, the laughs are infrequent as the focus never strays from the ugly baby in the room.
The lit up crib beeps incessantly. Lambert is visibly annoyed and the audience also seems irritated. There is an inhuman look associated with the crib’s green and red lights, almost like a spaceship dashboard from a 1960s movie. And then the pulsating sound is like a hospital monitor. The visual and audio combine to create this fantasy realism. Over the course of the show, this distracting barrier keeps us from connecting to the gravity of the situation. The noise and flashes of light deter from the human vulnerability. Under all the ugly baby and cheesecake eating hoopla, the genuine essences of this show is life responses to the unexpected.
There is one scene in particular that Luke and Lambert’s need for each other is this aching sensuality that abruptly stops. Luke tells Lambert that she is breathing in rhythm with the baby monitor. Although the honesty of that exchange is a lingering truth that has strong connectivity, that poignant moment is seemingly glossed over. Or more accurately... smudged.
SMUDGE could use a little more definition. Axler grounding some of her otherness would help build empathy instead of sympathy for her characters.
Running Time: Ninety minutes with no intermission
At Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport
Written by Rachel Axler
Directed by Allison Shoemaker
Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays at 7:30pm
Sundays at 2:30pm
Thru June 23rd
Buy Tickets at www.athenaeumtheatre.org