"Baby Girl" at Empire Stage: Audiences Have Packed This Comedy Turned Thriller, and for Good Reason
At Empire Stage, the ability to accomplish so much with so few resources never ceases to amaze, no matter which theater company is renting out the space. Kim Ehly's Baby Girl, conceived at a New York City writer's workshop just after 9/11, has finally received a full-fledged production at the intimate Fort Lauderdale space, courtesy of Ehly's Kutumba Theatre Project. It's a touching, complicated, multifaceted work, with a large slate of characters, numerous scene changes, and plenty of cinematic asides. It would be an ambitious undertaking for even the most well-endowed (monetarily speaking) 500-seat proscenium theaters.
It's something close to magic that Baby Girl not only works but excels with just eight cast members, a mostly bare-walled set, and static props limited to a bed, a sofa, a beat-up desk, and some movable pedestals. No matter — this is a transportive, original piece of stagecraft that rewards our imagination and always keeps us on our toes.
Lindsey Forgey, whose bubbly perk recently brightened a production of Xanadu in Boca, brings a similarly infectious likability to an otherwise dissimilar part. She plays Ashley, the adopted daughter of two "meat-and-potatoes Republicans" (David R. Gordon and Sally Bondi). As she grows up in South and North Florida throughout the '80s, she begins to realize that she's more into girls than boys, a revelation she drops on her conservative foster parents to their expected shock and awe and borderline disownment. Feeling like an outcast, she decides to track down the birth parents who conceived her in a hippie bus in 1968.
Ehly, well-known in South Florida as an actress, based the play on her own experiences coming out to her adoptive parents and searching for her birth mother, and it's filled with authentic details that can emerge only from the hindsight of autobiography. As Ehly's surrogate, Forgey is a natural comedian and a performer of effortless talent; ditto to Clay Cartland and Noah Levine, the versatile young actors who play many of the men who populate her life (most of the supporting cast members play upward of five characters). The rest of the ensemble plays off one another like a perfectly oiled machine, with Bondi's spastic exuberance connecting her pivotal roles as both of Ashley's mothers.
A comedy that lurches unexpectedly and effectively into a thriller, Baby Girl has resonated with the same-sex couples who have so far made up the majority of its packed-to-capacity run. Its references to South Florida institutions like Lester's and the Peter Pan Diner will bring smiles of recognition across all swaths of the audience. And David Hart's sound design, with its milieu-capturing audio samples and eclectic song selection, helps make the small assemblage of uncomfortable-looking furniture feel, ultimately, like a home.
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