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She’s Having a Maybe

A Pregnancy Scare Brings Three Generations Of Hardheaded Women Together

KIDS 'ESE DAYS: (from top) Pam Feldman tries to scold Tiffany James back to Baltimore from downy ocean in Blue Mermaid.

By John Barry | Posted 6/29/2005

Blue Mermaid By Mark Scharf at the Fells Point Corner Theatre through July 10

Empathy plays may not be an officially recognized genre, but someday they might rank up there with passion plays, Trauerspiel, and theater of the absurd. In the first act of Blue Mermaid, the movement’s philosophy is served on a platter: “I don’t carve the wood,” one character says, speaking of his own art. “The shape is already there when I find it.”

In Mark Scharf’s entry to this year’s Baltimore Playwrights Festival, all the elements of the empathy play are there from the outset. The plot design is basically an ordered set of pre-existing conditions. Three generations of related women, three troubled relationships, and four characters. That is more than enough to take up two acts. They’ve all got problems to work out, they all have to kiss and make up by the end.

At first glimpse, you’d expect to find the family of Blue Mermaid in a trailer park: The women fall in love around 16, get pregnant shortly thereafter, and then have their babies. Anne (Susan Scher) is a fiftysomething grandmother, who was with child in her late teens. She begat a daughter, who begat Keisha (Tiffany James), who is now—to no one’s surprise—possibly pregnant.

“Maybe you’re looking for trouble where there isn’t any,” says Anne’s boyfriend, Bill (Richard Stover), which could be applied to the play itself. Scharf certainly piles on the dysfunctions. Keisha (Tiffany James) isn’t just possibly pregnant; she also has a black father, and her mother dies of a drug overdose—that’s plenty of baggage for one character to deal with. The mixed-race complication doesn’t quite resonate here—except for a few tortured allusions to her heritage. Even the mother’s drug history feels glossed over, as Keisha has the bearing of a suburban middle-class everygirl.

Fortunately, James approaches the role with confidence. Annoyed and exasperated, Keisha is an eye-rolling valley girl with a chip on her shoulder. And Keisha goes toe-to-toe with her sharp-tongued grandmother Anne in the first act. A most ungrandmotherly grandmother, Anne is a painter holed up in her Ocean City studio when Keisha arrives.

 

Scharf is a very capable playwright who is working without a net here: At the very least, Blue Mermaid is a lesson in carefully constructed dialogue. How can you keep a play going when, in the end, you’re just waiting for the characters to get to the point where they’re able to converse? Scharf’s characters start by barking at one another, followed by a confession, then a tentative reconciliation. Somehow, Scharf runs through this rite of passage without letting the play get stuck.

Keisha gradually reaches an understanding with Anne, who sheds her skin in the process, moving from an uncaring, hermetic artiste into a concerned, loving grandmomma. Karen (Pam Feldman)—Keisha’s aunt and caretaker—is the most off-key element in the story. She is basically trying to seize Keisha and bring her back to Baltimore, and Feldman’s portrayal is a bit grating at first, though we soon find that she, too, has a heart.

In his supporting role as a local fisherman and Anne’s boyfriend, Stover gives an energetic comic performance. Usually barging into the middle of arguments, Stover looks around at the catfights and then backs off, cheerfully bewildered. Sharf wisely resists the impulse to bring Bill too far into the fray, and he remains an onlooker.

Blue Mermaid contains a good deal of smoothly rendered verbal jousting, and Scharf manages it with few harsh notes or artificial plot twists. The mellow background music—a Bach concerto plus George Harrison’s “Here Comes the Sun”—drive home the point: Even before they start to solve their problems, they’ve got to sing in the same key. The mood music, the light shifting on the sand, all contribute to that effect. When, at the end of the play, Anne starts to paint her granddaughter’s face into an unfinished painting, all the characters have coalesced into one fluid whole. Now they can move on to the big question: Is Keisha pregnant or isn’t she? Maybe Scharf is saving that for the sequel.

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