Reading the classic guide to pregnancy would not prepare you for “Expecting Isabel” by Lisa Loomer, which tackles personhood, not just parenthood.
The production reaches beyond critiques of social issues into the stars. The show does consider issues like prohibitively expensive health care, but its triumph is tackling the question of who or what organizes our universe.
In the opening scene, New Yorkers Miranda (Mia Fowler ’20) and Nick (Gilberto Saenz ’19) conceive of the idea to have a baby, the titular Isabel. The rest of the show follows them through fertility testing, support groups, the humorous “Hamster Test,” multiple rounds of in vitro fertilization and the adoption process. But the gestation period of the play is just a little too long, which is no fault of co-directors Abbey Burgess ’19 and Saenz.
Miranda and Nick do everything right. They eat the right foods. They have sex in the right positions. They go to the right doctors. And, yet, they cannot conceive a child. It seems to be the cruelty of the universe. Unless, the show asks, it’s actually the cruelty of God? Or has the couple made a wrong decision at some point? Or, maybe, there isn’t any order at all, and their infertility is just bad luck.
It’s devastating to watch the couple struggle for control. What they can control seems to shrink throughout the play. The rounds of fertility hormones impact Miranda’s mood and cause her hair to fall out. As she loses control of her own body, she strengthens her grip on her future child’s genes. Convinced that “everything is genetic,” she obsesses over the medical histories of pregnant women whose babies she and Nick might adopt.
Miranda and Nick’s tense debates over what constitutes a “healthy baby” — “What about a healthy baby with a learning disability? What about a healthy baby with Down’s Syndrome?” Nick challenges Miranda — show that even couples with the best intentions don’t always agree. For the most part, Burgess and Saenz are able co-parents. It is unusual in the theater both for a lead actor to direct and for a show to have two directors. Maybe that’s why this production simultaneously attempts to portray deep intimacy and questions of cosmic scale.
Burgess and Saenz use two devices to emphasize the production’s universal question. The first is projections of stars and galaxies designed by Lukas Cox ’19 that wrap around the stage at key moments. Their bolder second move is keeping all 10 actors on stage for almost the whole show. At times, the constellation of characters scattered across the stage, watching Nick and Miranda fight and make up, is funny. At other times, their presence and interjections are distracting. This play doesn’t need a laugh track or a sigh track. The scene in which Nick and Miranda are finally the only ones on stage is, by far, the most powerful.
The directing duo’s use of the ensemble is most effective in crowd scenes on the city’s streets and in the city’s parks. Burgess and Saenz’s use of only 10 chairs as the set is impressively imaginative. The white chairs and light-colored wood floor of the Saybrook Underbrook makes the space the perfect canvas for the beautiful lighting by Connor Duwan ’20. The ever-present constellation of actors is their own version of Humans of New York, or, rather, Humans of the Universe.
The brightest star, the sun of this solar system, is Vanessa Copeland ’21, a consistently dazzling actor. One of the characters she plays is Lupe, a loving mother of two, who can’t afford another child. Miranda and Nick meet with her about adopting her newborn. Copeland magnificently portrays the struggle of a mother who knows that the best thing for her baby is for her to be raised by someone else.
All of the actors in the ensemble do double-, triple- or even quadruple-duty as the other members of this universe — Nick and Miranda’s families, participants in the support groups they attend and a range of other characters that shine brightly in just one scene and then burn out, never to be seen again.
Payson Whitwell ’20 does heavy lifting in two recurring characters, both middle-aged women: Yolanda, Nick’s Catholic mother, and Paula, a jaded feminist in the couple’s support group. She tackles both roles with admirable gusto and humor.
But the show is mislabeled as a comedy. The irony that exists is dark. Nick earns money painting murals for other couples’ nurseries. Even worse, after buying paint for their own nursery, the couple must sell their apartment to pay for the IVF. The second act is essentially a slew of tragic scenes. Even the show’s witty lines cannot right the play’s course once it veers into existential devastation, which is too bad for Fowler, who specializes in delivering zingers and never strikes the same comedic note twice. Ultimately, the audience can’t help but feel attached to this couple.
Watching this production is like watching a fetus go from looking like a nut to a sea monkey to, finally, a tiny human complete with fingernails and taste buds. Each scene adds more definition and complexity, and, by the end, the world of this play is fully formed, living and breathing on its own.
Liana Van Nostrand | firstname.lastname@example.org