The past continues to haunt the present of the two women whose lives intersect in Zayd Dohrn’s powerful personal drama Reborning, now getting its Southern California Premiere—and only its second production—at Orange County’s illustrious Chance Theater, with Resident Artists Casey Long, Jennifer Ruckman, Karen Webster doing some of their best work ever under Artistic Director Oanh Nguyen’s inspired direction.

 For those of you who’ve seen these four powerhouse talents in action at the Chance, this should be reason enough to put Reborning on your playgoing calendar sometime between now and May 20, and you need not read any further than this, the better to be taken by surprise by script, performances, and direction. In fact, all you need to know going in is that Reborning is not, as publicity—and the Chance marquee—proclaim “A Psychological Thriller.” If you expect Grand Guignol damsel-in-distress thrills (and maybe a stabbing or two), you will be disappointed, cause it ain’t gonna happen.

Still need a bit more of a preview to make up your mind? If so, I promise to keep this review virtually spoiler-free.

 20something Kelly (Ruckman) makes dolls for a living, not Barbie clones or Cabbage Patch wannabes, but such true-to-life infants that someone seeing one of them in a baby stroller or being held by its “mother” could easily be fooled into thinking it’s the real thing. As to just why anyone would want such a dolly, Kelly doesn’t (or at least she claims she doesn’t) give this a moment’s thought.

50ish Emily (Webster), who has commissioned one of these dolls, arrives on Kelly’s doorstep one day to check up on her progress, which any other potential buyer would likely find more than satisfactory. Emily, however, expresses a certain dissatisfaction in the baby’s skin tones, which seem too rosy for an honest-to-goodness babe in arms, and she offers to pay extra for additional work to be done, money which Kelly refuses to accept. Her dolls come satisfaction guaranteed, she reminds the older woman.

This is not the first time Emily will pay Kelly a visit.

Completing the cast of characters is Kelly’s live-in boyfriend Daizy (Long), so named by his parents for no other reason than their youthful hippydom, and if this seems a bit too cutesy, it does provide a clue as to how Daizy’s past differs from Kelly’s and Emily’s. Hippies may not provide their offspring with a so-called “normal” childhood, but there’s certainly nothing devastating or traumatic in being raised by aging flower children.

 Playwright Dohrn takes this setup and uses it to powerful, moving effect in order to examine the various ways we choose to cope with loss. He also interjects just enough laughs to relieve tension when needed.  (There’s a hilarious bit revolving around Daizy’s work with latex, for example.)

This reviewer has seen Webster and Ruckman sharing the Chance stage in Frozen, Jesus Hates Me, Rabbit Hole, The Seagull, and Variations On A Theme: The Best; Webster and Long co-starring in Coyote On A Fence; and all three together in Welcome Home Jenny Sutter, three of these productions directed by Nguyen. It’s no wonder, therefore, that the trio not only do memorable, multi-layered work in Reborning, but that they perform together with the kind of chemistry and connection that actors with a history together bring a special resonance to, particularly when that history is shared with their director. Ruckman’s blend of vulnerability and mettle, Webster’s steeliness tempered with the pain of misfortune, and Long’s quirky good-guyness make for some of the threesome’s most compelling performances.

 Nguyen’s direction is, as always, imaginative and nuanced, with equal attention given to actors and audience, the latter in his imaginative use of the Chance Theater stage. Only in one instance, an extended scene which has Ruckman and Long interacting far downstage at floor level, does Reborning suffer for lack of optimal sightlines.

Bruce Goodrich’s scenic design recreates Kelly and Daizy’s Queens apartment and studio with flair and attention to detail, and his costumes are a perfect match for each character. Brian S. Shevelenko’s superb lighting ups the dramatic ante, as does Ryan Brodkin’s sensational sound design, with its lullabies, crying babies, and eerie, ominous mix of sounds. Matthew Schleicher’s video design, an integral part of Dohrn’s script at one key moment in particular, is another winner, though some Opening Night technical difficulties did keep the actors on their toes on one significant occasion. (If only I could have seen that scene when the live camera feed was working.)

 Kimberly Colburn is dramaturg, Courtney Greenough stage manager, and Nicole Salimbeni assistant stage manager.

Riveting and ultimately redemptive, Reborning is Chance Theater at its dramatic best. A psychological thriller it is not—but no matter. It is not to be missed.

The Chance Theater, 5552 E. La Palma Ave., Anaheim Hills.

–Steven Stanley
April 28, 2012
Photos: Doug Catiller, True Image Studio

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