Perhaps it’s an assumption to say that when a playwright writes a semi-autobiographical piece, its characters have a little more heart and soul. There’s just something that resonates and hits a bit closer to the bone. Maybe I feel that way because my focus right now is on Kim Ehly’s play Baby GirL at Empire Stage, about an adopted woman, who is also a lesbian. Baby GirL follows her life as she ends up searching for her birth mother in an effort to feel complete. Ehly’s play is so successful in reaching in and grabbing so many emotions that in the span of under two hours you’ve empathized, sympathized, shed a tear or two, laughed more than a little, and discovered that somehow you, too, have become part of the family she’s created.
The play opens with the introduction of two couples. Lights up on the first couple who are in the throes of passion in a Volkswagen Bug, circa 1968. The second couple, an Oldsmobile Delta 88 in the driveway of their Sunrise, Fla., home, is also passionately procreating. The year is 1969. We learn these particulars from our narrator, Ashley (Lindsey Forgey), who explains that these two encounters were the beginning of her creation – the VW couple conceived her, while the Olds couple, non-successful in their procreating, adopted her.
New parents (Sally Bondi and David R. Gordon) assure her that she is a special child “because we picked you out of all the other babies in the whole world.” To Ashley, it was more like they were picking out a pet. Her father nicknamed her “Plug” (she was partial to a pacifier as a baby) and the pet name also signifies a closer bond she has with her father more so than her mother, who believes that everything can be solved with the right dessert. When the parents have a natural child, her brother Ben, Ashley feels even more like an outcast.
She dreams about who her real mother is: perhaps it’s Anne Murray, she tells her best friend, as Murray’s hit “You Needed Me” rises in the background. Maybe it’s actress Jessica Lange, she daydreams. The early reflections are poignant, especially as Ehly drops plenty more bread crumbs throughout about this character’s search for self through others. There are hints, too, about her sexuality. Some of them are stereotypical, including her never wanting to play with Barbie dolls, while others create some of the best comic moments, including a lip-sync duet with high-school best friend, Jimbo. As they act out “Summer Lovin’ ” from the movie “Grease,” she begs Jimbo to let her sing the male part of Danny. It’s funny enough, but the real hilarity comes from Jimbo (Clay Cartland) who has to play Sandy.
The soundtrack of Ashley’s life, set to music such as the aforementioned “Grease,” and pop hits like Culture Club and other ‘80s and ‘90s music, figures prominently in the play, too, much like the soundtrack to a John Hughes film. Ehly uses this to her advantage as it helps to move the story through different time periods.
The seven supporting actors have a lot of work to do as each plays multiple roles as characters weave in and out of Ashley’s life, but Ehly handles this with skill and does her audience a great service by having her narrator guide us through where each of the characters fits in. Credit to the playwright for having this work so seamlessly as Ashley gently steps out of a scene to introduce it, speaking to the audience directly, then easily weaves back into the scene.
While the play does deal with Ashley’s coming out as a lesbian, it is done with much humor (in fact, one of the funniest and, albeit poignant, parts of the play is when Ashley tells her father she’s gay). The playwright’s idea of substituting announcing one is gay with anything else that would create panic and shock in a parent makes the subject matter relatable on any level.
Ehly, who is a well-known actress on the local scene, understands how to create rich characters, and as a director, also shows that she knows how to work with her actors to give the characters the depth necessary to make this play work well. And work well it does.
Forgey, who was so good as Little Red in Slow Burn Theatre’s recent Into the Woods, commands the stage as Ashley, revealing so much vulnerability as the character that you can’t help but like her. Sally Bondi, playing the dual roles of adoptive mother and birth mother, has to play opposite ends of the spectrum and does so with skill. Clay Cartland, Jessica Welch, Nori Tecosky, Miki Edelman and Noah Levine also have their hands full playing 25 characters between them, but each inhabits their roles so that all are fully portrayed. David R. Gordon plays the affable father and the birth mother’s new husband, with an easy charm.
While there are a couple of tweaks needed, mostly in the second act where the story seems a bit rushed to tie up some loose ends, and more than a few local references that may not play outside of South Florida, these are minor flaws. Ehly shares pieces of her life in Baby GirL and what she ends up delivering is a very original play that’s cause for celebration.
Baby GirL runs through August 5 at Empire Stage, 1140 North Flagler Drive, Fort Lauderdale. 954-678-1496. www.empirestage.com. Note: The play contains adult content.