Entering the theatre, one is immediately hushed—three actors, all part of the voice of the grief-stricken daughter, are already onstage, not interacting or acknowledging the audience, yet inhabiting and lingering around the space, making them extremely uncomfortable, almost nervous of what is about to happen. It’s good preparation for what’s to come.
Stranger, Baby is hard to grasp, just like its subject matter: the loss of a mother. It is fragmented, with frequent, abrupt blackouts and interruptions, reflecting the broken and shattered emotional state of the child left behind, who is floundering and confused, having lost to death the very person who brought them to life. It is slippery and fleeting, just like the imagery of water recurrent in the play. The daughter figures (Abigail Casson, Katie Knight, Georgie Dettmer) grapple with their grief and uneasy sense of self, trying to make sense of and verbalize what they’re going through, but end up contradicting and even fighting each other. Nobody—the characters, the voices, the figure of the mother, the audience, perhaps even the poet—really knows exactly what’s going on or how to deal with it. The emotions are just there. Neither the audience nor the characters fully understand what shape the water—the tears, the sea of grief—takes, yet one feels its effects acutely, as at one point actual water is brought onstage, and an actor is drenched with it: drenched with grief and loss, struggling to keep afloat and dry.
Stranger, Baby, a dramatization of a collection of poems, is an anthology of emotions and thoughts that range over being uncomfortably in-your-face, enigmatic, and sometimes even incoherent. But it makes sure of one thing: that everyone knows that it is feeling sad, and that by the end of the play, they share this feeling too.
Ambiguity and conflicting emotions pervade the play. The relationship between the daughter figures and the mother (Joanna McClurg) is at the same time deeply personal and emotional and distant— this is reflected, perhaps, in the title, which sounds contradictory, considering the antonymous distance between a “stranger” and a dear “baby.”
Such coexistence of both personal and impersonal feelings between both the mother and child, and then the characters and the audience, is constantly struggled with and confronted. As their mother, she is arguably the closest human being in the world. But she has also been “removed from the world,” as one of the daughters sternly puts it—to a place far, far away, into the dimension of the dead. This is represented by the constant physical tension between the characters, as the daughter figures move around the stage, circle and stare at each other, and reach out for the mother.
A similar tension exists between the characters and the audience. The set is unwelcoming and unobliging—the audience, after all, is met by characters who aloofly ignore them upon first entering the theatre—as the play opens abruptly and with an explosion of emotion, leaving one feeling both perplexed and intrusive. At the same time, it reaches out vehemently, demanding an audience, if not sympathy: the characters confess to audience members their most intimate feelings, their urge to verbalize them evident in the actors’ passionate deliveries, and they frequently turn to face everyone and talk directly to them.
Stranger, Baby thus deals with loss, grief, and the tension between the personal and impersonal in human relationships. Overall it is a short yet intense and emotionally-packed experience—one that you will enter feeling uneasy, and step out affected and shaken. A dramatization of poems may initially seem like an excessively cerebral project, but Stranger, Baby is the opposite of that: it is a plunge into real, unadulterated emotion in its frank and conflicting form.