In the opening moments of Emma's Child, a self-described "local nothing" of a teenage mother permits her unborn baby to be adopted at birth by a well-meaning, well-to-do childless couple. This might lead audiences to believe that playwright Kristine Thatcher is gearing up for a probing discussion about, say, class warfare, the rights of the unborn and parental responsibility. Before long, however, Thatcher adds a disturbing plot twist to her thought-provoking tale. Baby Robin, it seems, has been born with a severe form of hydrocephalus, a serious and, in this case, life-threatening condition in which fluid accumulates in the brain, resulting in mental deficiency. For the next few moments, the dramatist's incipient debate about social issues gives way to a candid look at individual--and, ironically enough, larger--human truths.
If only the Theatre Group, which is presenting Thatcher's award-winning play at the Phoenix Theatre, had been afforded a script that continued along those lines. As it is, director Steve Tangedal's tender approach to a subject every parent dreads thinking about is unfortunately compromised by the playwright's inexplicable obsession with cutesy literary references, patently absurd tangential episodes and confusing flashback scenes that wind up making the complex story's manifold themes even more difficult to comprehend.
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What's more, it's a stretch for us to believe that Chicago hospital officials would, without even a token attorney, convene a formal meeting with the prospective parents to casually discuss the sensitive issues of legal guardianship, visiting rights and the child's medical care. After all, it's unclear whether Emma, who's absent throughout much of the play, even retains legal guardianship. It also seems highly unlikely that following such an inconclusive meeting of the minds, the unhappy couple would enjoy virtually unrestricted access to the baby's intensive-care unit (they're aided by a sympathetic male nurse who's been strongly warned not to bend the medical center's rules). And in Act Two, when Thatcher includes a scene in which the vacillating husband (his wish was for "a healthy Caucasian girl") and his drunken buddy (he's experiencing complicated and irrelevant relationship problems with another character in the play) gather around a campfire and toss around references to Shake-speare's King Lear and O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh, it takes a monumental effort to remain focused on tough issues that most of us would just as soon ignore.
To be sure, there are moments throughout the two-and-a-half-hour show that are undeniably moving, genuine and sincere, thanks largely to the efforts of Tangedal's talented cast. And to their credit, the actors manage to temper their heartfelt affection for the play's subject matter with an unequivocating devotion to Hatcher's plentiful use of gallows humor. Led by Deborah Persoff's understated portrayal of the adoptive mother, the performers also manage to communicate the insufferable anguish, pitiable helplessness and unspeakable outrage that each character experiences. But ultimately you get the feeling that, in more ways than one, the heartbreaking story of baby Robin deserves far better treatment.
Emma's Child, presented by the Theatre Group through October 3 at the Phoenix Theatre, 1124 Santa Fe Drive, 303-860-9360.