To baby or not to baby

That is the question in Rebecca Gilman's new play

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By Doug Deuchler

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Our local theater world is expanding. If you have not yet discovered the 16th Street Theater in nearby Berwyn, now's your chance to treat yourself to a smart, lively show, The Crowd You're In With, by Rebecca Gilman.

I was happy to learn about and thrilled to finally experience this wonderful theater in our neighboring community. The production is funny and timely, reflecting current family and lifestyle issues more than any other play I have seen recently. Director Anish Jethmalani keeps the pace brisk. Seven actors, an impeccable ensemble, provide strong, believable performances.

This production has been "Jeff Recommended."

The plot, essentially a debate over the rewards of parenthood, showcases three couples debating a key life choice: whether to have children or not. There have been plenty of plays about having babies or folks trying to conceive or bring up babies. But there are almost no works about the actual decision-making process beforehand.

Until recent history, having children was seen as an inevitable blessing. Here the traditional expectation that you grow up, get married, and have children is rigorously challenged. Gilman raises the probing, provocative question: Does a child complete a couple's love or destroy it?

The play is set during a casual 4th of July backyard barbeque on the patio behind a brick two-flat somewhere on the North Side. There are no fireworks in the sky just yet but plenty of sparks flying among the three couples, two pairs of 30-somethings and one "baby-boomer" couple at this informal get-together.

One of the couples, expecting their first baby in a few months, has already made their impending offspring the center of their world. They're convinced their daughter will change the world. Windsong, named by her "stupid hippie" parents, is played by Skyler Schrempp. Dan (portrayed by Brad Harbaugh), her man-boy hubby, a music critic wearing a Star Wars T-shirt and backwards baseball cap, is a kind of a Vince Vaughn type.

Passive aggressive, restless Melinda (Michelle Courais), is Windsong's best friend. She's convinced a baby will bring marital fulfillment, but her husband, Jasper (Sorin Brouwers), is not totally on board with the idea of fatherhood and questions how much he really has in common with his supposed close friends. Jasper fears losing his own goals and identity. He seems to tolerate Dan only because of his wife Melinda's longtime friendship with Windsong.

Brouwers, playing conflicted, over-analytical Jasper, is especially vivid in exposing his inner turmoil.

Jasper and Melinda have been anxiously "trying to get pregnant" for five months, which is not so very long, really, but it seems forever now that their best friends are expecting their first child. Playwright Gilman seems to suggest that the decision to have a baby is often fueled by "keeping up with the Joneses." She raises the question of whether most couples have children simply because it's expected of them.

Tom and Karen, the complex, progressive, childless landlords, played by Steve Ratcliff and Joan Kohn, are no Fred and Ethel Mertz. This sarcastic pair of 60-ish atheists long ago chose not to have children. Their only sin is that they're unapologetically frank about their choices. It's not that they dislike kids; they just never wanted any in their own lives. Their very existence seems to challenge and threaten the two younger couples. Their choices have long made people uncomfortable and have prevented them from acquiring very many close friends.

Karen is sharply cynical and especially outspoken. "Of course you're scared," she says to pregnant Windsong. "The world's probably going to end in your baby's lifetime."

A late arrival at the barbeque is a stray single buddy, Dwight, an oddball garage band musician, waiter and stoner, played by Andy Slade. Dwight's BYOB contribution is a six-pack of cheap brew, yet he drinks the imported bottle beer brought by others. Slade is especially hilarious when he rants about the behavior of toddlers and their self-centered parents in restaurants. Anyone who's ever worked as a waiter or waitress will especially relish this hilarious stretch of comic relief.

Gilman makes a lot of strong points in the play, but near the end she grows a tad preachy.

Perhaps the debate about whether a couple should procreate is something that only educated, upscale folks engage in. There is certainly plenty of food for thought in The Crowd You're In With. The title of the play, incidentally, is a lyric borrowed from Bob Dylan's "Positively 4th Street."

This is one of those sharply focused contemporary works in which you feel like you actually know these folks. I have found myself thinking about these characters in the days since I saw the play. That's always a telling sign that a show and its performances really work.

Presented in real time, the play lasts 75 minutes with no intermission.

The realistic set is designed by Roger Wykes. Lighting is by Mac Vaughey. The stage manager is Sara Carranza.

A special treat I thoroughly enjoyed but was not expecting was the post-show discussion. Following each Thursday and Friday performance, the cast and director come onstage while 16th Street Theater's artistic director, Ann Filmer, leads an audience question-and-answer period. The lively optional discussion was worth staying for and illustrated just how thought-provoking this realistic modern play is for audiences.

Yes, there really is theater in Berwyn. You have until Aug. 13 to catch this production.

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