February 24, 2021

A Woman Faces a Painful Choice and a Tough-Talking Stork in “Babel”; Passage Presents an Online Reading of Jacqueline Goldfinger’s Dark Comedy

“BABEL”: Passage Theatre has presented an online production of “Babel.” Written by Jacqueline Goldfinger and directed by Jill Harrison, the dark comedy is set in a future in which genetic testing may prevent a person from being welcome in mainstream society. Renee (Tai Verley, above) must make a painful decision, with unwanted help from a tough-talking stork. (Photo by Lauren Eliot Photography)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

In Jacqueline Goldfinger’s darkly comic play Babel, Renee (the main protagonist) exclaims, “What is this, an old episode of Star Trek?” She probably is thinking of a 1992 Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, “The Masterpiece Society.” In that story, the Enterprise crew encounters a colony that has been developed through genetic engineering and selective breeding.

Because most episodes of Star Trek take place on a fictional planet in the far-distant future, the concepts it examines tend to be comfortably abstract. Although Babel is set sometime in “the future,” Goldfinger strips away that cushion of remove. The play is set on Earth, much closer to our own time, with characters that are vividly relatable.

Babel’s page on the New Play Exchange’s website credits McCarter Theatre with a 2019 developmental reading. The play is the recipient of Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company’s Generations New Play Award, as well as the Smith Prize for Political Theatre.

Passage Theatre presented an online reading of Babel from February 18-21. Ticketed viewers were sent links that entitled them to watch the prerecorded video, skillfully directed by Jill Harrison.

Babel begins wordlessly; we hear controlled, rhythmic breathing. We then see that it is Renee (who is given an outstanding portrayal by Tai Verley). She anxiously consults a book, and continues her exercises. Her spouse Dani (infused with steely composure by Leah Walton) appears, and soothingly starts singing “Beyond the Sea.” Renee joins her, and it is clear that they often sing it together.

We learn that Renee finally has gotten pregnant after trying for eight years, and that an unspecified condition prevents Dani from being the one to give birth. Renee is apprehensive about a medical test that she must undergo the next day. In the play’s dystopian world, there is a “precertification law” that requires all embryos to be screened for physical, cognitive, and behavioral defects.

Renee is distraught at the test results. The physical and cognitive results are acceptable, but the doctor is “concerned about the baby’s behavioral genes” and refuses to issue a certificate. If Renee chooses not to “take the shot” and terminate the pregnancy, the child will be tested again at 18. Unacceptable results at that point banish a person from society. They are forced to live in an “underground village” with constant monitoring, and manual labor as their only career choice. Renee’s state of mind is worsened by a sense that “someone or something” is following her.

Later, in a scene titled “Old Friends,” Renee and Dani visit another couple: Ann, who works with Dani, and seems to have risen in the company with her help; and Ann’s husband, Jamie. Dana Kreitz gives Ann an intense but amiable demeanor, and a penetrating gaze. Griffin Stanton-Ameisen infuses Jamie with debonair, jovial sincerity.

Kreitz and Stanton-Ameisen are married in real life, which permits them to share one screen. (Passage’s website emphasizes that adherence to COVID protocols preclude actors from being “in the same space under any other circumstances.”) This now-rare physical immediacy noticeably enhances the couple’s onscreen chemistry, though to a considerable extent Verley and Walton are able to use powerful line readings to compensate for their socially distant performances.

Jamie reveals that Ann, like Renee, is pregnant. Dani’s reaction is to scream and laugh hysterically. Startled by Dani’s outburst, Jamie abruptly glances at his phone, then smiles and gazes in Ann’s direction. Under her screen, a stork’s silhouette appears in a screen of its own. (Renee whispers to Dani, “I told you I thought someone was following me.”) The stork’s shadow grows until it covers all four screens, its beak pointing ominously at Renee, before it vanishes. The sequence is an eerie bit of animation.

Ann asks whether the tests hurt, and how long it takes the certificate to come through. To Renee’s horror, Dani quickly lies that the baby is pre-certified, even though no paperwork has arrived in the mail due to a “backlog.” Overwhelmed, Renee leaves the room, and Jamie offers to check on her. Ann presses Dani for more details about the couple’s experience with the precertification process.

Outside of Ann and Jamie’s home, Renee smokes. The stork appears (infused with a hard-edged, cynical attitude by Stanton-Ameisen, in an entertaining dual role). The costume (by Summer Lee Jack) includes eyeholes, prompting Renee to describe the bird as a “mascot.” The stork rudely retorts, “This is why nobody likes you.” Later he adds, “You want to take on society? You want to take on nature, nurture, and the … genetic code itself?” Renee dismisses the stork as a hallucination; he contradicts her but evaporates again.

What makes Verley’s performance so strong, and the stork scenes effective, is that Verley captures Renee’s psychological path from fragile equanimity to painful uncertainty about everything, deftly veering from one to the other. This leads us to ask: is the stork a figment of Renee’s imagination — a manifestation of her emotional turmoil — or something else?

After Dani and Renee go home, Ann and Jamie discuss their own upcoming genetic test. Jamie expresses reservations about the precertification law. He objects to anyone being “branded at birth” because of less-than-desirable results. Ann coolly replies that “dwindling resources” should not be spent on people who are “unreachable, unpredictable.”

During their conversation, Jamie is to our left, while Ann is on our right. For the following scene, in which Renee and Dani also debate the merits of the pre-certification law, Harrison arranges the screens so that Renee to the left of Dani.

This visual parallel is subtle but notable, because the conversations are similar. Renee also has misgivings about the law, and reveals that she could not vote for it (though she abstained rather than vote against it, because Dani supported it.) “Who gets to play God?” she muses. “Remember Babel?”

“Maybe if God did a better job, we wouldn’t have to play Him,” Dani assertively retorts. “The law is fine; our doctor just made a mistake.” As a business professional, she is convinced that she can use her negotiating skills to compel the doctor to issue a certificate.

Next, we see Ann desperately repeating affirmations to herself. “My life skills rating is in the highest percentile,” she quotes. Just as Renee consults her book in the first scene, Ann, frantically looks at her phone to remember what to say next. “My baby’s test results will be perfect!” Ann is a mixture of Renee and Dani. Her apprehensions about her genetic test are similar to Renee’s; but like Dani, she is convinced that she can stay in control of the outcome, through verbal willpower.

Babel is a compelling work of speculative fiction, which examines a number of philosophical issues, while remembering to do so through convincing characters. Although the play predates the pandemic, its theme of desperation for a sense of control over unknown circumstances is obviously resonant.

But a sub-theme — established by “Beyond the Sea,” and developed by Brishen Miller’s attractive background design for two scenes set on a beach — cautions against trying to dominate nature too much. The randomness of the sea’s waves illustrates nature’s unpredictability, and Renee’s success in finding peace of mind, and a satisfying resolution, largely will depend on her ability to accept that randomness.

For information about Passage Theatre’s upcoming events, visit passagetheatre.org.