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A CurtainUp Review
When the Bough Breaks
By Les Gutman
>Janet (Shelagh Ratner), the only mental health professional in psychologist/playwright Robert Clyman's When the Bough Breaks, asks the question you'd most expect of her:
How does this make you feel?
This new play concerns itself with a sensation everyone hopes never to feel. I confess I was hesitant to experience it even vicariously. The good and bad news is that Clyman adorns the play with enough diversions so you don't feel it all that much.
But for the fact that he is inexplicably bereft of a cellular phone, Doug Harris (Chris Clavelli) and his wife Susan (Tamara Scott) are quintessential ";yuppies". By agreement, more or less, they have waited twelve years to have a child. Now, three months prematurely, Susan gives birth to a one pound, thirteen ounce boy with a cerebral hemorrhage. The couple is immediately confronted by the irreconcilable anguish of their circumstances: given the proper medical attention, the baby will most likely survive but, bluntly, the success of modern medicine will produce a failure of their long-planned dream.
It's not surprising that, as they consider a catalogue of questions of bio-medical ethics, Susan and Doug undulate with guilt and anger. How could their plans have gone so far awry? What can they do now? The first question has no answer; the second has many. In simple terms, their choices are:
In his play The Lower Cortex, which CurtainUp reviewed recently in the Berkshires (link below),
Clyman presented two cat-and-mouse games focusing on a three characters in two pairings. When the Bough Breaks, on the other hand, features a larger cast. (There are eight actors.) The play nonetheless seems at its best when it is at its smallest. As it expands, embellishing the other characters with their own stories, personalities and problems instead of highlighting the couple's struggle, it loses its force and direction.
There are two doctors, neither of whom cogently informs the analysis. As interpreted by Rockwood, Ivan becomes Lt. Columbo. An uncomfortable communicator, Ivan is a clumsy fulcrum for the couple's bioethics seesaw. Jane Ross is sure-footed portraying Beth, the affable OB-GYN who is also a confidant/friend, but we learn surprisingly little from her character. Janet, a better mouthpiece in spite of her penchant for "shrink-speak," is marginalized, mostly by Doug's abrasive sexist attitudes. Ratner plays her as a well-intentioned professional but she is rendered ineffective. We also meet Eileen (Dianne Zumbro), a religious nurse who is devoted to the care of these precarious babies. ("Any child is a gift," she lets us know, a bit too obviously.) She is practically given a plot of her own even though her function need not extend beyond the obvious.
While it is laudable that Clyman has recognized the impact of personalities and prejudices in the counseling process, the net effect is that the intense discussion on which we should be focused is obscured by collateral (even if independently important) subjects. The other nurse, Mary (Christine Siracusa), is the play's most interesting and relevant character. A scene at the end of the first act, when she uses every trick in the book to win over Susan to the notion of keeping (or even looking at the baby), is the play's high water mark. What a wonderful play this would have been with a few more such carefully constructed scenes.
The play's weakest moment is the one in which it ought to be reaching a crescendo of emotional intensity: the final scene between the parents, arguing about and ultimately reconciling the issues they must confront. Clavelli, in particular, seems so controlled in his emotional outbursts that his feelings ring utterly hollow. Perhaps this is consistent with his personality, but the characterization, however honest, produces a scene that is far less compelling than it needs to be.
Direction by James Knopf succeeds in capturing the complex scene shifts even though he is less able to harness the storytelling. Carlos Doria's sets are designed to roll into and out of scenes seamlessly, and go far in supporting the play's brisk pacing.
LINK TO REVIEW OF ANOTHER PLAY BY ROBERT CLYMAN
CurtainUp's review of The Lower Cortex