By Brooks Appelbaum
Tanya Barfield’s drama, “The Call,” which is currently running at TheaterWorks through June 19, contains terrific potential for probing the multiple dilemmas and complicated feelings associated with what one character calls “cross-cultural adoption” (in this case, a prosperous white couple considering the adoption of a child from Africa). Unfortunately, Barfield adds subplots and overly dramatic reveals that distract from the central topic, and director Jenn Thompson’s rapid-fire pacing of the dialogue further undercuts one’s sympathy and involvement.
Annie (Mary Bacon, who is directed to begin on such a high level of anxiety that she has nowhere to go in the play’s 90 minutes running time) and Peter (Todd Gearhart, who manages to be unhurried and believable) have been trying for years to conceive a child, undergoing every invasive procedure that money can buy. And this white urban couple has a great deal of money, as Luke Hegel-Cantarella’s set and Tracy Christensen’s costumes make clear. One of the play’s mysteries, though not intentional, is how they came by this sumptuous living, since Annie is a not-quite successful visual artist and Peter’s line of work is never mentioned.
We find out about their plans for adoption, and about Peter’s connection with Africa, in a series of dinner party scenes with their close friends, a black couple, Drea (Maechi Aharanwa) and Rebecca (Jasmin Walker). These dinners, though initially jovial, are, as one might imagine, the occasion of increasing tensions concerning “cross-cultural” adoption, as each woman becomes alternately more or less supportive concerning Annie and Peter’s decisions, especially as these decisions change with a series of unexpected revelations concerning the child’s background.
Alemu, the African man who lives in the apartment next door to Annie and Peter, and who left his homeland as a youth because of dire circumstances, embodies the most interesting element of “The Call.” As played by the magnificent Michael Rogers, whose stately and mysterious presence creates genuine suspense, Alemu slows the production down to the welcome pace of a fable. In one remarkable scene, he tells Annie an actual fable, and in the final, major scene the fable-like story he tells is agonizingly real.
It’s difficult to hold onto the central and most interesting question in this play, but if you can, the question will give you plenty to talk about as you leave the theater. At what point does adoption out of longing for a child and the journey of parenthood, turn into adoption as a charity project or as penance? And if adoption becomes one of those two, is there anything morally wrong in that? “The Call” at least poses the question, and Michael Rogers’ performance as Alemu creates a truly original character whose heart of darkness lights up the stage.
The Call runs through June 19. For tickets or more information call 860-527-7838 or go to www.theaterworkshartford.org