Whatever Happened to Baby Eva?


Show #44: Reborning, SF Playhouse, May 12.

Lauren English and Baby Eva in Reborning. Photo by Jessica Palopoli.

By Sam Hurwitt

Babies are cute and all, but baby dolls can be pretty dang creepy. Baby dolls made to look real—and not just real but just like your dead child—well, those are pretty high up on the creepiness scale.

As luck would have it, those dolls are the subject of Reborning, the world premiere now playing at SF Playhouse. The play is by thirtysomething writer Zayd Dohrn, whose Magic Forest Farm (about kids who grew up on a commune) premiered in 2009 at Marin Theatre Company, where Reborning director Josh Costello works as artistic director of expanded programs.

Reborning centers on Kelly, an artist who makes realistic replicas of babies from pictures, usually but not always for bereaved parents.  Occasionally someone wants to give someone a gift of a lifelike version of the recipient as a baby, which sounds a little bizarre as well. (There’s a disclaimer in the program saying that in the real-life art form of “reborning,” most are collected as works of art, not as surrogates for deceased loved ones.)

Nina Ball’s set credibly captures a cluttered DYI dollmaking studio, with milk-crate shelves and an elevator door that’s seemingly the only point of entry. On the wall Kelly projects close-ups of what she’s doing to the doll’s head, both for her reference and for eerie visual effect. (Videos are by Kristin Miller.)

Kelly shares her studio with boyfriend Daizy, who’s also her former employer in the rubber dildo business around back, where she learned to make lifelike skin. Daizy explains his name by saying “hippie parents.” (It’s also a near-anagram of Zayd, the first name of the playwright, whose parents are former Weather Underground leaders Bill Ayers and Bernadine Dohrn.) Alexander Alioto’s Daizy is funny and easygoing and disarmingly blunt, and he’s a breath of fresh air as the play descends into darker territory.  “Honestly, I find your current work a little disgusting, Kel,” Daizy says. “There’s something really sick and exploitative about making money off other people’s suffering.”

Needless to say, Kelly doesn’t see it that way. She wants her work to be comforting, but at the same time she doesn’t want to know anything about how it makes people feel. She doesn’t want to know anything about her clients’ lives or the children she’s recreating. She just wants to take pride in her work. As played by Lauren English, Kelly is guarded, standoffish and peevish. Due to a horrible childhood incident, she has no feeling in her hands (ironic and hard to imagine for someone who does finely detailed work with her hands), has a history of drug abuse and generally does everything to make herself number than she actually is. Although Kelly is supposedly the more academically trained of the two, both artists affect a sort of anti-intellectual pose: Daizy prides himself on being a nonreader, and Kelly insists that she’s anything but an artist. Costumer Miyuki Bierlein has them in grungy casual work clothes that make it look like they just rolled out of bed.

Lorri Holt is a subtle, grounded presence as Kelly’s client, Emily, who seems comparatively straightlaced and businesslike but actually very down-to-earth and sympathetic. The trouble is that the baby doll is never quite lifelike enough for her, because it’s not actually her dead baby brought back to life.  Although she’s quite nice about it, she keeps asking for more, and Kelly becomes more and more obsessed with getting it right.

It could be a promising setup for a comedy, and indeed the show is billed as a black comedy, but it plays more as psycho-melodrama, as over the top in its own way as What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? but without the camp appeal. There’s plenty of humor in the play, especially when Daizy’s around, but the truly ludicrous psychological elements couldn’t be more serious. It’s a well-performed, well-paced production, but the play itself is much more solid in the lighter scenes and seems sillier the heavier it gets.

There’s a lot of conspicuous exposition in the play about why Kelly does what she does, which ultimately makes the play feel more like an interesting writing exercise about the phenomenon of lifelike baby dolls than a fully-formed drama in its own right. The production features several of these dolls designed by Cher Simnitt and Stef Baldwin of Life.org, and one doll—baby Eva—is pretty much the star of the show. It’s possible to imagine the play performed with any old baby doll in the role of the reborn, but it would make it much harder to take the whole thing seriously.

Through June 11
SF Playhouse
533 Sutter St.
San Francisco, CA

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