War. Disease. Death. Sometimes bad things happen to good people. In Christmas Babies, the inaptly-titled new play by Nalsey Tinberg, two women confront some of these bad things and together find the strength to survive them.
This is no mean feat, considering the chasm that separates the women. The elder of the two is Sprintze, a Jewish immigrant who lost many of her relatives in the Holocaust. She is a housewife and mother, who lives by the traditions of Judaism. The other woman is Barrie - forty years younger, born and educated in America, a college professor who has no use for Sprintze's traditions and superstitions.
Barrie shares little with Sprintze, except a common birthday (Christmas), and the fact they happen to be mother and daughter. When Christmas Babies begins, the gulf between Barrie and Sprintze is apparent. The women meet for their annual birthday cake (which Sprintze has, of course, baked from scratch), but Barrie sees their visit as little more than an obligation.
The bulk of the play is a fairly standard mother/daughter bonding tear-jerker, in which the two women face various adversities, during which time Barrie comes to respect her mother's ways and is ultimately proud that some of her mother's steel runs in her veins.
What separates the show from the ordinary is Sprintze's almost fanatical belief that she survived the Holocaust not because of her strength, but because she followed Jewish traditions. Sprintze believes that God protects the righteous, and it is only those who tempt fate by not obeying "the old ways" that suffer. Sprintze's beliefs are challenged to the core when something bad happens to her own daughter - Must Sprintze look her only daughter in the eye and tell her she has brought tragedy onto herself by failing to keep kosher? Or is it time for Sprintze to let go of the crutch of tradition?
Darlene Kardon plays Sprintze to "no, don't trouble yourself" Jewish mother perfection, telling stories and dispensing wisdom with the ease of someone who has always been called "Ma" - and asking for help with the discomfort of someone for whom not being in control is terrifying. Louise Davis is solid as Barrie, but not quite as convincing as Kardon. At her best when Barrie is at her worst, her performance is weakest at the top of the show, when her ever-present smile doesn't quite match Barrie's selfish drive, and her opening monologue is somewhat bumpy in its delivery.
Playwright Tinberg has her characters acknowledge the audience's presence, and even directly address them. It is a cute technique, introducing Sprintze and Barrie's mother/daughter relationship as they bicker over who should tell us which story. It is, however, used disastrously at the climax of the play, when Sprintze's most soul-baring monologue includes a line recognizing the audience. It is an intensely private moment, on which the audience is privileged to eavesdrop. For Sprintze to act as though the audience is actually there, sharing it with her, is to push us out of her living room and back into a theatre. Everything special about this otherwise routine play was working its way up to this single powerful scene, and Tinberg inexplicably destroys it by taking her character partially out of the moment. It isn't a total loss. The scene recovers, and the play still manages a few tugs at the heartstrings before it ends. But the misstep is costly; Christmas Babies evokes only sniffles, where it could have earned tears.
Eugenie Devane, Deirdre Lenihan in association with Jeffrey Davis and Bird In The Hand Productions present Christmas Babies a new play by Nalsey Tinberg. Directed by Kate Randolph; Scenic and Lighting Design by Tom Meleck; Composer and Sound Design by Michael Andreas; Stage Manager Jacob Wartena; Properties by Danny McCabe; Wardrobe/Dialogue Coach Bernadette Bonfiglio; Scenic Painters Gabe Dell, Josh Davis, Jacob Wartena; Carpenters Danny McCabe, Kevin Grover, Josh Davis, Gabe Dell, Jacob Wartena; Photography and Design by Doug Hyun; Publicity by Philip Sokoloff.
Ma - Darlene Kardon
Christmas Babies runs weekends through May 26, 2002 at the Laurelgrove Theatre in Studio City. For reservations and information, call Tickets L.A. at (323) 655-8587.