‘Babel’ Delves into Parental Hopes and Fears

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NEWLY EXPECTANT mother Annie engages in an anxious dialog with the stork that handles delivery in Theatre Exile’s science-fiction drama Babel dealing with the complicated advances of in utero testing on a stressed planet. Story P. 2. Photo by Paola Nogueras

BY TONY WEST
A world of depleted water and resources has driven people to rigorous eugenic screening to reduce the number of babies born with any predisposition toward costly physical, mental or behavioral problems. For parents trying to start a family, the overriding question becomes: Will their fetus pass screening and win “pre-certification” as part of the best that the human species can offer?

This troubling vision is being shared in Babel, the newest production of Theatre Exile at 13th & Reed Streets, a world premiere of a play by Jacqueline Goldfinger. It is a thinky drama whose characters are deeply engaged in dealing with their futuristic society’s norms – the virtues and the pains of compliance, and troublesome urges of defiance.

The story follows the relation of two young couples who are close friends: Dani and Renee (Amanda Schoonover and Anita Holland) and Ann and Jamie (Bi Jean Ngo and Frank Nardi, Jr.). Both have succeeded in conceiving and both are undergoing the first challenge of conscientious pregnancy: testing.

This future world develops several ideas that lie around us in 2020. Genetic testing has become able to predict the probable risk that a fetus will exhibit antisocial behavior – like violence. Past a certain threshold, parents are encouraged to end the pregnancy. There is a gentle side to this rule: while they may carry undesirable children to term, their offspring will be banished to supervised residences and low-status work, cut off from “polite society.” Families with “normal” children are apt to shun the unlucky families.

But it works! Crime is way down. Consumption of raw materials per capita is now expected to last hundreds of years.

Still, is it good? Are “substandard” persons not part of the natural human balance? Is our life really better off without them?

L-R, ANITA HOLLAND, Amanda Schoonover, Frank Nardi, Jr. and Bi Jean Ngo play wto young couples embarking on the anxious journey of parenthood in a future world that imposes troubling risks on them. Photo by Paola Nogueras

A few other sci-fi twists dot the narrative. One of the couples is lesbian. In this future, they are able to merge their ova to yield a child that comes from both of them, although artificial insemination from a screened donor is still needed. But only one woman, Renee, still must carry the baby. And everybody is fine with pot, especially during pregnancy.

Oh, let’s not forget the giant hallucinatory stork … but I’ll leave it to theater-goers to see how that plays out.

The play, which unrolls in one long act, begins as farce and posturing but evolves steadily toward a tragic, pensive outcome. It provides a searing study of how social pressures can drive wedges between couples and friends that cannot be healed.

Babel taps the eternal anxieties that all parents feel during pregnancy and reaches primal emotions. First, though, it must wade through lengthy didactic discussions in which the characters rehearse with each other the moral dilemmas of their age. And come back to them again and again without ever gaining true communication.

Perhaps this is the Babel of the title: the babble of any time’s received wisdom, complete with internal contradictions that cannot be gracefully resolved.

Theatre Exile has a long tradition in South Philadelphia, where its office has been located for 23 years, in a building formerly shared with Murray Comic Club. For many years, the company roved the city’s venues for its productions. But when the building’s zoning was changed to allow performances, Theatre Exile had a venue of its own. After new owners rehabbed the property, it now has a permanent basement theater that it settled into last year.

Producing Artistic Director Deborah Block, a longtime resident, is proud of the company’s community-outreach programs in Jackson School, South Philadelphia High School and Columbus Square. It provides free performances in South Philly parks.

Babel runs through March 8. Readers may check it out at www.theatreexile.org.

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