Honest hope, real pain

Proscenium Players Inc. brings audience members to tears with Emma’s Child

Rated 5.0

I cried during the final minutes of Proscenium Players Inc.'s production of Emma’s Child. I cried all the way out to my car, and I was still sniffling when I drove away from Carson City.

It’s very rare that I cry at plays (although every once in a while I get a little teary). The fact that director Rod Hearn and his cast and crew were able to make me go all blubbery—to touch my heart in such a powerful way—earns Emma’s Child my highest rating and a permanent place in my memories.

Emma’s Child, by Kristine Thatcher, was the first play ever commissioned by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, and whoever gave the thumbs up on this piece should be given a medal. At two and a half hours, Thatcher’s play can feel a little long at times, but her dialogue is some of the most honest I’ve heard, the humor is gentle and truly funny, and the characters are as real as your next-door neighbors.

The play tells the story of Jean and Henry, a 30-something couple who have been trying to have children for years and years. They’ve finally decided to adopt, and the adoption agency sets them up with a young, somewhat trashy unwed mother named Emma. But the couple’s hopes are dashed to pieces when the baby, Robin, is born hydrocephalic; he retains too much water in his brain, and the swelling and pressure often cause retardation and even death.

Henry refuses to get attached to a child with no future, but Jean is so desperate for a child that she begins to visit Robin in the hospital and soon falls completely in love with him. Jean and Henry’s friends try to discourage her, as do Robin’s doctor and hospital administration, but Jean is determined that this baby will overcome the odds and survive.

As Henry and Jean, costars Scott Van Tuyl and Melanie Collup turn in the best performances I’ve ever seen from them. There was such tenderness between them that it never seemed like an act. And when Collup broke into tears during the final act, I just lost it, and I wasn’t the only one. When the house lights came on, nearly all the women I saw—and a few men—were wiping their eyes.

But though I could go on much longer about the quality of the acting, I’d be remiss not to mention the powerful effects of this play’s technical elements. The circular, pale blue set resembled abstract art; in the center, holding your attention with centrifugal force, there was always the baby hooked up to monitors in its hospital bed. The use of sound effects and music, designed by Jud Price, was the subtlest and yet most effective I’ve heard. It’s amazing to me how little I noticed sound before, now that I’ve heard it done right. And the lighting, designed by Gary Guberman, was also wonderful, especially during a scene in which Henry and a friend go camping.

The supporting cast deserves a round of applause—I could have reached out and hugged Tracie Moore as nurse’s aide Mary Jo—but my final accolades are very much deserved by director Rod Hearn. I’ve previously praised him for his work on stage, and now I’m thrilled to discover that he is such a multi-talented artist.