The Bay Area got an unforgettable introduction to the work of Linda McLean last year with Any Given Day at Magic Theatre, a play that was many things in a short space of time: funny and tender, gut-wrenching and horrifying, bittersweet and deeply disturbing. Now Berkeley's Shotgun Players reteams the Scottish playwright with Jon Tracy, the director of that production, for McLean's strangers, babies, which premiered in Edinburgh in 2007.
Like Any Given Day, strangers is a relatively short play, about 80 minutes without intermission. This one is told in five scenes, each of which shows the same woman with one of five different men. Most of the scenes are funny, at least at first, but they're also increasingly unnerving as bits and pieces of the woman's back story are filled in. And it's never through expository dialogue but elliptical allusions to something terrible that happened long ago, something that can't help but change the way we see our main character.
Danielle Levin seems kind-hearted if neurotic and possibly haunted as May. When we first meet her she's obsessing about an ailing baby bird on her balcony. Cole Alexander Smith as her husband, Dan, patiently but patronizingly explains to her that she's not doing the bird any favors if she rescues it, that it's just going to die anyway. There's obviously affection between them, but there's also something subtly amiss in how almost desperately May seems to fixate on the birds, rattling on and on about them while Dan sits and observes soberly.
Nina Ball's set elicits a sense of disconnection from the outset. It's a square platform with a moat of space between it and the walls to either side. Tracy makes things especially dramatic by ending each scene with a sudden, jarring chime (courtesy of sound designer Theodore J.H. Hulsker), followed by the rear wall rising to show all four other men, who somberly execute the next scene change.
Tim Redmond and Danielle Levin in strangers, babies; photo: Pak Han
Danielle Levin and Richard Louis James in strangers, babies; photo: Pak Han
Richard Louis James is downright venomous as May's bedridden father in hospice care, snarling at her through the pain and morphine as she attempts to remain upbeat. Why he's so hard on her is something that you just have to wait to glean over time, but his spite is leavened somewhat by familiarity and dependence on her as his only visitor.
Bit by bit, we get to know May through her interactions with Tim Redmond as an amusingly nervous and apologetic guy she met online; Joe Estlack as her jittery and contemptuous brother; and Tim Kniffin as a smoothly efficient but faintly disdainful social worker.
Danielle Levin and Joe Estlack in strangers, babies; photo: Pak Han
May has a tendency to ramble when she gets nervous, but so do most of the characters in the play. One of the marvelous things about McLean's dialogue is the way she makes these spilling streams of sentence fragments feel natural at the same time that their very fragmented nature builds tension. Even as it makes you laugh, there's an eerily uncomfortable undercurrent that grows more overwhelming as it goes on, and Tracy and the cast do a good job of building that unease. I have yet to see a McLean play that doesn't leave me agitated that it ends when and where it does, leaving us hanging, but it's not at all that her plays feel unfinished. It's because their unresolvedness is so brutally effective.
strangers, babies runs through November 17, 2013 at Ashby Stage in Berkeley. For tickets and information visit shotgunplayers.org.