by John Stoltenberg
The play is about a married couple who have a severely incapacitated child.. As a result the couple’s marriage is sorely tested. We watch in fear and fascination as the bleak comedy unfolds, and when one of the spouses contemplates murdering their damaged progeny…
Oh wait, that’s not the play I’m seeing. That’s a play I saw decades ago. I’m actually here at The Writer’s Center in Bethesda watching Pinky Swear Productions’ Smudge by Rachel Axler, which is about a couple whose daughter, whom they dub Smudge, is born horribly misshapen. But what’s running through my mind is another play: A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, by the British playwright Peter Nichols, which is about a couple whose daughter, whom they dub Joe Egg, was born horribly disabled.
It’s never a good sign when your mind wanders off to another play like that. Especially if the play you wander off to is lots better than the one you’re watching.
Playwrights should not be deterred from tackling themes and setups that have been dramatized before. Artful theatrical imitation can be a brilliant homage. Revisiting storied works from the past can unpack fresh narratives for now. And I do understand why the topic of a botched baby captured Axler’s attention. I myself wrote a play in college about a married couple who tour midway sideshows with their freak child. The aberration infant is a resonant trope, particularly for young adult ambivalence about conception and parenthood. (See also Rosemary’s Baby.)
But Smudge dies aborning. The characters are sit-com-y, with nary a credible emotional moment between them. The dialog is archly overwritten when not lame. The device of the defective daughter is presented as a white baby carriage tricked out with tubes, which light up, in sync with sound effects, when the unseen deformity “communicates” to its mother—which gets annoying, and after a while you wish it would shut up. The director, Ryan Maxwell, writes in a program note that Smudge “was one of the smartest scripts I’d read in a long time”—which, if true, I would have advised not acknowledging.
There are two things about this production that make it worth seeing. One is Brandon Cater’s sensitive performance as the young husband. He made the part seem more playable than it was, and I am keen to see him in a real role, Romeo, this summer at Brave Spirits Theatre. The other reason to see Smudge is Brandon Roe’s unnerving but intelligent sound design, which had the uncanny effect of making the production seem more momentous than it was.
Of course you may want to see Smudge to see how creeped out you are by the storyline. And you are anxious about not having a healthy baby. And you’ve never seen or read Joe Egg.