Baby with the Bathwater
By Christopher Durang
Directed by Clayton Jevne
at Theatre Inconnu
Until October 18
Reviewed by Leah Callen
Welcome into the cozy crib of the Dingleberries, the most dysfunctional couple on the block. In this dark parody on parenting, Helen and John start out terrified of raising their child the wrong way. But not to worry. Very quickly, the Nyquil and Quaaludes take over as they relax and ruin him in innovative ways. Though family tension is nothing new in storytelling, Baby with the Bathwater certainly serenades the audience with an unexpected lullaby as we follow Daisy’s life, from his first moments to his 30th birthday. Baby Daisy somehow grows into both the centre of their world and a painful afterthought as his parents switch moods faster than the settings on a blender.
Things complicate further when Nanny marches uninvited into their home– a scary Mary Poppins who is part “Auntie Mame” and part “antichrist.” Lorene Cammiade delivers the character’s warped lines with such a cheerful English accent that I couldn’t help cracking up. The surprise Nanny and her startling antics subvert the saccharin stereotype, and she seems to chastise parents for hiring strangers to raise their children.
This hyperfamily is hilarious. To pull off a hundred-minute play whose entire plot spotlights a baby doll is quite a theatrical victory for both playwright and production. And the audience laughs all the way through. It’s fitting that the baby is a physical prop since the child in the story is treated as more silent prop than person. Durang’s witty dialogue is anything but clichéd as one character reads Mommie Dearest to the poor thing as a bedtime story. And speaking of props, a great one was the red rattle that comes with a warning label: made with lead, asbestos, and red dye no.2. It sums up the toxic love in this story and the universal risks of naïve parenting.
As Daisy ages and sprawls unresponsively on the playground in existential malaise and his neurotic mother goes into passive-aggressive catatonia on the floor at the feet of her drugged-up husband, one can’t help wondering who drove whom crazy – the baby or the parents? The psychology of child development around early trauma and learned behaviours gets fully exploited here. This is a love/ hate relationship as illustrated when Helen yells “I love you. I hate you!” at Nanny before they all go to bed. In the same bed. Ahem. Since Helen always yearned for either “a baby girl or a bestseller” and her writing career never surpasses Spark Notes, Daisy is raised as a girl until 15 years old when his masculinity can no longer be denied.
The ’80s flavour this play, yet it still rings true for today. Sometimes the tragic bolts that strike border on being too random. Strangers run in and out of their lives with disturbing intimacy at first sight. People just happen to be run over by buses. And characters can seem a tad one dimensional at times. But, this is a satirical tribute to all the magical nannies and fairy godmothers of childhood fiction. Instead of a big bad wolf, you get the baby-eating German Shepherd. So it makes strange sense.
Tea Siskin was fabulously funny to watch as a designer mother at the playground. She was Marisa Tomei meets Snow White on valium, as sweet and flaky as homemade apple pie. As Helen and John, Rebecca Waitt and Jack Hayes unravel comically before our eyes, from uptight and spring-loaded to loaded with amphetamines and ambivalence. Still, somehow these extreme characters represent the fumbling of every family with every child.
The giant baby blocks that make up the set spell out small, subtextual words during the play like die and def, and add an increasingly menacing tension between innocence and pain. One can’t help feeling these grown adults raising this child have all the common sense of a baby themselves.
This play arcs beautifully from the absurd to sane. Matthew McLaren plays adult Daisy and brings a needed counterpoint to all the outrageous chaos. When he appears, it’s a wonderful turning point in the play where reality bleeds through and we feel the darkness of the irony – comedy melts into tragedy.
But just when it could sink too deep, the end is a relief, the proverbial diamond ring that should come since the mockingbird refused to sing throughout Daisy’s unfortunate childhood. Despite the traditional lullaby being perverted in every possible way, it somehow ends on a final note of hope and that is so rewarding after the emotional mess that poor Daisy endures. This ending is earned. Normal has never been so refreshing. If there is one positive message you can take home with you from Baby with the Bathwater, it is this: you can survive your childhood and rewrite its song.
Leah Callen is completing her MFA in playwriting at the University of Victoria.