Review: ‘The Call’ at Theatre Rhinoceros (****)

by Barry David Horwitz
Rating: ****
(For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.)

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This reviewer is a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)
This reviewer is a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

The question of “The Call” turns out to be: Does Melissa Keith’s anguished Annie deserve our compassion for her indecision about adopting an African child, or is she a self-centered thirty-something, full of contradictions? Keith gives a fascinating performance, making the ambiguity of the character palpable and moving.

In the West Coast Premiere of “The Call” by Tanya Barfield, Theatre Rhinoceros has brought us a whole panoply of problems, decisions, and fears faced by parents, especially mothers, who are trying to have a baby in their thirties. Annie (Melissa Keith) and her compassionate husband Peter (Hawlan Ng) have tried all the fertility treatments and medical tricks with no luck. At this crossroads, Annie is an anxious young woman who is willing to try adoption.

Maybe American social demands and overwork have driven her to this point, but she is applauded and celebrated by Peter and by their good friends, Rebecca (Nkechi Emeruwa) and Drea (Alexaendrai Bond), a worldly-wise African American lesbian couple, for her life-changing decision. Barfield uses lyrical and familiar language to make each scene, each character, lively, persuasive, and lyrical.

At a relaxed dinner party with the stylish Rebecca and Drea, Annie and Peter confide that they are going to adopt, and they are waiting to hear from a pregnant woman in Arizona. The high-flying lesbian couple lavish praise on the idea and on Annie. But then, they recount a clever story from their recent safari in Africa, planting a new idea in Annie’s mind. Drea comments wittily from the sides, while Rebecca re-enacts a scene from their African trip.

Rebecca brings the scene to life, exuberantly acting out the scene of an Australian tourist who tried to take photos of a lioness and her cubs. The Australian crawled out onto the hood of their stalled Jeep in the African outback. It’s a wealthy tourist’s idea of adventure, but clearly based on privilege and deluded first-world ideas about safety and superiority. Their African guide desperately tried to stop him, but the tourist does not understand the risks of the African setting. Here, the playwright plants the seeds of what is to come in “The Call.”

When Annie quickly settles on adopting an African baby, and is waiting for the agency’s call, Barfield deftly dramatizes debates between the two couples. Annie reveals her fears about being “white as a loaf of Wonder Bread.” Can she take care of a little black girl’s hair “sculpture”? Drea wants to know why Annie does not consider adopting an African American child, while Rebecca brings up the dangers of adopting a child from abroad. Doubts about the child and her family begin to cloud Annie’s view of the future.

Even as Peter tries to build a crib for the baby to come, Annie gives way to anxieties about “the call” that is coming. She wants a baby, not older than 18 months, and she worries about the family, the mother, disabilities, and not being the baby’s “only” mother.

Melissa Keith completely embodies every turn of Annie’s worries—and of course, Annie is unprepared for the challenges. When the call comes, the agency claims she is a two year old girl, but the photo looks more like a four year old to Rebecca. Annie suffers the destruction of her idealized vision of mothering. She falls to pieces because she is not prepared for the unexpected or the challenging. Her two friends are not much help because they, too, idealize her motherhood—but without taking up such a challenge, themselves. Their lives are too full and too demanding, as they fly around the world.

So, Annie challenges them and they challenge her on going to Africa when there are plenty of black children in need in the States. Who is helping to alleviate the poverty in the U.S., as opposed to the “third” world? The whole cast grapples with enormous questions of wealth and poverty, at home and over the globe. Each actor engages in lively debates among friends, worthy of Bernard Shaw’s “Major Barbara.” The characters are sharply drawn and engaging. There’s no hint of how their conflicts will end, in this wonderfully contemporary and unpredictable play, precisely and sharply embodied by all five actors.

The fifth actor, Annie and Peter’s neighbor, Alemu, turns out to be a gentlemanly middle-aged man from Africa. He has lived in the States for years, has accepted his exile, lived through the AIDS crisis, and offers free advice. Alemu turns out to be a prophetic addition to their conflicts. Darryl V. Jones presents the amiable neighbor, Alemu, as a mysterious, joyful, and wise presence who offers care packages for their African journey to pick up the child. He transforms the story and has secrets to share.

Alemu meets Annie at the children’s playground and he offers another African story to answer her questions about adoptive motherhood. Jones seizes our attention with his hypnotic telling of an African parable that provides a climax for the show. Jones brings vision, love, and brilliance to his story-telling. But Annie cannot yet understand his caring and sharing, so he has to tell her, finally: “You want a child from Africa, but you do not want Africa.”

Can these obsessively self-focused first world couples comprehend or deal with what’s going on in the whole world? Is it really about babies—or some unmet desire on the part of Americans? Do even the African American characters understand what adopting this child can mean? Tanya Barfield asks many important questions—and these actors, intelligent, emotional, and moving—make us think about them during and after the play. Barfield’s play is beautifully directed and staged by Jon Wai-keung Lowe, so that each character has her or his moments to explain what a conundrum we have made for ourselves.

The sum of their individual psyches and their desires to improve the lives of others constitutes a history of our country. Our desire to do “good” still drives us on, but how do we transcend the limitations of our past? See “The Call” to find new paths. Listen to the neighbor, Alemu. Listen to Rebecca, Drea, Annie, and Peter. Theatre Rhinoceros is bringing us a joyous conversation.

“The Call” plays at The Eureka Theatre through March 12, 2016. For further information, click here.

IF YOU ENJOY READING THEATRESTORM, PLEASE CLICK HERE TO EXPRESS YOUR APPRECIATION.

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“The Call” by Tanya Barfield, produced by Theatre Rhinoceros. Director: Jon Wai-keung Lowe. Set Concept: Jon Wai-keung Lowe. Costume Designer: Kitty Muntzel. Lighting Designer: Sean Keehan. Sound Designer: Colin Johnson. 

Cast:

Annie: Melissa Keith. Peter: Hawlan Ng. Rebecca: Nkechi Emeruwa. Drea: Alexaendrai Bond. Alemu: Darryl V. Jones.

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