Leave the Light On
Strangers, Babies walks you into the shadows of child abuse
Women are not usually the perpetrators of molestation crimes. There are certainly no discussions of female children who abuse and molest other children. “Bad” women usually remain in the shrewish, manipulative and emotionally abusive “moms” category (moms who sometimes kill their kids, of course). Even then, the abusive mom’s behavior is rarely linked back to the seeds of abuse she experienced as a child herself; this lineal investigation is usually reserved for male perps, probably because men still molest more often than women. It’s still difficult to imagine a little girl could do such damage—except for that tap-dancing darling Rhoda from The Bad Seed, but she was a sociopath, and that was just a movie, right? Maybe.
Tackling largely invisible societal issues is what director Dave Barton does best, and in his Rude Guerrilla production of Strangers, Babies, written by Scottish playwright Linda McLean, he once again hauls out our dirty laundry for a fascinating, if unnerving, inventory.
Broken down into five scenes, Babies glimpses the life of May (Brenda Kenworthy), a very troubled (but not quite Rhoda-esque) woman with a terrible secret—child abuse. Though at first we’re unsure if May was abused as a child or if she abused other children when she was a child, we pretty much figure it out as we see how the abuse translates into May’s adult life. And boy, does it.
The first segment, “Greenstick Fracture,” shows us May’s humanity—her obsession with caring for hurt things, in particular, like a traumatized bird that’s landed on her balcony. It’s one big, analogous scene, but at this point, since we don’t know anything about May or her husband Dan (Jay Michael Fraley), all we get is that May can be really, really annoying. In hindsight, of course, it’s clear: May is overcompensating for past crimes. But watching a metaphor when you don’t have the other half can be draining and dull. Fortunately, the remaining scenes kick it all into high gear.
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“The Very Smell” shows us May’s strained relationship with her dying father, who seems to know about the abuse in some aspect and blames her for it. In “Breasts and Etcetera,” May seeks out her own karma, embarking on a scrappy, adulterous affair with a guy whom she met in an online chat room who likes to hurt women. She wants him to beat the hell out of her, but when he asks if she’ll return the favor, she declines—she’s “done hurting people.”
In “Dark at Half Past Three,” May meets her fairly schizophrenic brother Denis (a terrific Kane Anderson) in a park and tells him she and Dan are going to have a baby. Denis’ violent reaction gives us more of the story—May abused him (and others, perhaps) when they were kids. Denis now steers clear of children, fearing he’ll abuse them, and is convinced May should do the same.
In the last segment, “He’s Asleep,” May has had her baby and is receiving a routine visit from a children’s social worker whose job is to ensure May the perp isn’t continuing the cycle. When he prods her, she gets defensive and weird, which makes him even more suspicious. All the while, we can’t decide if he’s being a jerk or if she’s really hiding something. Is May able to change? Is anyone? It’s frustrating and nerve-wracking—and makes for some damn fine drama. Being able to carry such a load of volatility and hurt for an entire play is no small feat, either, and Brenda Kenworthy is on top of her game, taking us by the hand and leading us into the darkest of emotional places. Thank God we have a nightlight.
Strangers, Babies at Rude Guerrilla, 200 N. Broadway, Santa Ana, (714) 547-4688; www.rudeguerrilla.org. Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; also Sun., May 11, 2:30 p.m. Through May 17. $20.