A 'Call' to conversation about important issues, locally and globally

CLEVELAND HEIGHTS -- How far would you go to have a baby, assuming you've tried everything and nothing's worked?

If you're determined to do a charitable act, how far would you step outside your comfort zone to impact people you thought you'd never meet?

Is it worth it?

Should the U.S. provide aid to Africa, or are their issues solely their problems?

Can stepparents reasonably expect to win over the hearts of their stepchildren and what should they do to accomplish this? Can the love these adults try to provide be as comforting as that coming from biological parents?

These are some of the questions that will undoubtedly serve as fodder for discussion following a viewing of "The Call" -- Tanya Barfield's taut, compelling, funny and elegantly written play receiving a splendid production by Dobama Theatre through Nov. 15.

The playwright provides no clear cut, right or wrong, black or white answers. We're left with a sea of gray, having to ponder the questions and answers for ourselves. That's part of the beauty of the play, which features lively, often intense, naturalistic and funny dialogue.

For a 45-page script, Barfield packs a lot into her play about a white American couple trying to adopt a child from Africa.

"The Call" never feels jumbled. Barfield neatly stitches together race, homosexuality, adoption, and global issues to form a cohesive whole. And it's particularly timely; November is National Adoption Awareness Month and issues of race and homosexuality continue to dominate the news.

Barfield places global issues under a microscope by zeroing in on a home filled with diverse characters. Watch "The Call" and the song "We are the World" might spring to mind.

It's not surprising that the setting's merely a "metropolitan area." It can be any city, reinforcing the notion that no matter where we are or who we are, we can't separate ourselves from the world -- our world -- and its issues.

It's also no wonder that Barfield has made Annie an artist. Consciously or not, the playwright contrasts the comparative ease of creating something with talent and tools at your disposal with the process of having a child; you can't create the type of child you desire or the perfect adoption situation.

Since the play's topics are so highly-charged, the characters often talk over one another, starting a sentence before another person's completed his or her line. There are also uncomfortable pauses and words not meant to be spoken, but conveyed through actors' facial expressions and gestures.

"The Call" is a tough assignment, but a fine cast, led by director Matthew Wright, nails the rapid fire dialogue, which still comes across as spontaneous. Wright milks the pauses for the desired effect, whether it be to imbue the production with humor or add tension to an uncomfortable scene. And the actors' performances are blessed with nuance; in a deft manner, they non-verbally express words written by Barfield, but meant to guide the performers regarding what their characters are trying to say.

Barfield has described the play, in part, as being "about stepping outside your comfort zone and committing to something bigger than yourself."

From the beginning, Wright skillfully emphasizes a homey, comfortable aura in the house of Annie and Peter. Amid a lively mood, the owners of the residence (designed spaciously, orderly and with an appealing look by Laura Carlson Tarantowski) seem, well, right at home. They're lying on their stomachs on the floor with pillows to support them, listening happily as their guests talk about a recent trip to Africa.

To illustrate how removed the continent is from these people's lives, even the African American characters, lighting designer Marcus Dana at the beginning focuses on a tattered pair of shoes and a soccer ball that would obviously be welcome donations in Africa. The items are lit in such a manner that they look entirely isolated from the characters' comfortable environs.

Barfield keeps the mood celebratory until a picture of the African child Annie and Peter are about to adopt appears on Annie's phone. It's a photograph that will prompt second thoughts, unleash secrets, strain Annie and Peter's marriage and their friendship with Rebecca and Drea. It will also lead to tension between Annie and Peter and Alemu, their African neighbor.

The well-meaning gentleman (an affable, sensitive, pleasant, dreamy and dramatic Nathan A. Lilly) obviously is proud of his country and heartbroken by what he's endured while living there.

"You want a child from Africa, but you do not want Africa," is one of the character's most powerful lines and Lilly speaks it in a convincingly hurt tone of voice.

Lilly's four cast mates also perform admirably.
Ursula Cataan makes Annie determined in a cheerful, charming sort of way. She's a free spirit who's happily and comfortably convinced that she's doing right by adopting an African child. Cataan then transitions seamlessly to a flustered, exasperated, argumentative and vulnerable person whose frustration and hurt is palpable when things don't turn out as she expects. You feel for the poor woman and want to see that carefree smile once more.

Abraham Adams plays Peter as a playful, seductive, man who's not afraid to appear silly in front of his wife. Adams also, at the right moments, makes Peter a defensive, explosively angry person who's at the center of one of the play's most tragic revelations.

Carly Germany's vivacious Rebecca, who's constantly expressing herself with her hands, contrasts nicely with the more laid back Drea, who's spirited in a more understated manner.

Dobama Theatre's mission is, in part, to "premiere the best contemporary plays by established and emerging playwrights in professional productions of the highest quality."

Dobama's cast and crew can take a bow and encore, because they've fulfilled that part of their mission with their touching, sensitive production of the "The Call."

WHAT: "The Call"
WHEN: Through Nov. 15, with performances at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays as well as 2:30 p.m. Sundays.
WHERE: Dobama Theatre, 2340 Lee Road, Cleveland Heights
HOW MUCH: $25 to $28, with senior and student discounts available. Call 216-932-3396.