As director Allison Shoemaker notes, Rachel Axler's "Smudge" defies categorization. It's neither straight-up drama nor simple black comedy. It's something one exactly likes or dislikes, though both the play and Ka-Tet Theatre's current production of it are thought provoking enough that, like the title character, they grow on you.
The story could be relayed simply: Colby and Nick's joking contemplation of the alien landscape of their baby's ultrasound turns nightmarishly serious when Cassandra is born with profound physical abnormalities. The dissolution of the couple's dreams for their child and for themselves as parents leads them on paths that only intersect in desolate confrontations for most of the play.
Nick's instant attachment is eroded by the reality that his daughter cannot and may never respond to him, no matter how much attention and effort he has to lavish on her. Colby, in contrast, is repelled by the one-eyed, limbless "Smudge" and experiences her as a malevolent, supernatural presence, capable of manipulating not just the tubes and wires that sustain her, but light, sound, and electricity in general.
The play ends with the two finally making their way toward one another as they spin a shared dream of a different child with all her normal, middle-class aspirations, then turning from the fantasy to face the difficult reality of Cassie.
The production is ambitious in more than just the choice of play. Chad Bianchi's scenic design manage to capitalize on the small studio spaces at the Athenaeum Theatre, rather than allowing it to be a limitation. The mottled copper walls give Nick and Colby's living room an extra-terrestrial cast. When "Cassie" makes her appearance (in the form of a pink bassinet wound all around with lights and wires and tubes), one of these walls breaks in half, leaving a jagged outline as a reminder of the violent act of birth and life itself.
Literally imposing itself in the life of the family, the bland and nearly blank walls of Nick's office at the US census bureau appear upstage and in between the living room and nursery. It's visually effective and creates a wing area behind the living room wall, facilitating smooth entrances and exits that might have otherwise been problematic. Karen M. Thompson's lighting design and the work of "Smudge Technician" Dan Meisner conspire to keep the audience off kilter right along with Colby and Nick.
Although both the play and the production are interesting and successful on the whole, there are things about both that feel unsatisfying or, perhaps again like the Smudge, not quite finished. The introduction of Nick's brother and coworker, Pete, adds an interesting layer to Nick's journey as he seems to bond with his daughter immediately, yet never speaks about her, even to his family, until pressed.
However, Nick's psychological detours into the philosophical nature of being and constant rumination on an upcoming work presentation on the demographics of the American family end up feeling like disjointed afterthoughts. Similarly, Colby's interactions with Pete don't consistently or obviously illuminate her character or journey.
The performances are very good on balance, too. Again, though, some moments are better than others and the actors don't always seem to connect. As Colby and Nick, Stevie Chaddock Lambert and Scott Allen Luke begin well and often play off one another beautifully, but at the point of the play's highest tension, their choices seem at cross purposes to one another. As they narrate the life of the daughter they did not have together, Chaddock Lambert's performance suggests sexual ecstasy, whereas Luke is flattened by grief. It's not that those can't or shouldn't exist side by side, but something about them doesn't quite work together.
As Pete, Andrew Marchetti is cheerfully annoying and unnervingly normal. He works well with both Chaddock Lambert and Luke, but neither the forbidden kiss shared by Pete and Colby nor Pete's somber attempt to fill in for Nick when he rushes out of his work presentation feel like particularly coherent moments. It's not clear, though, whether what doesn't quite work, or doesn't work quite as well, is attributable to the play itself or the director and actors not quite sticking the landing in a handful of places.
"Smudge" plays through June 23 at the Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport Ave., Chicago. For info or tickets, call 773-935-6875 or visit http://www.athenaeumtheatre.org.