Grief anchors itself to a piece of cake at one point in “The Electric Baby,” Stefanie Zadravec’s poignant play about unexpected bonds between ostensibly dissimilar people. In one of several deeply affecting sequences in Rorschach Theatre’s production of the work, a woman named Helen sits alone at a table, confronting the cake slice, a party leftover that represents, to her, the world’s fading memory of her dead daughter. She glares at the pastry with brooding resentment before forcing herself to eat a small piece. Suddenly she dissolves into tears. Clumsily, she eats chunks of cake with her fingers, shoving the morsels into her mouth as she sobs.
The vivid evocation of heartbreak is a strength of “The Electric Baby,” which takes care to note that loss affects different people in very different ways. As staged by Rorschach’s co-artistic director, Randy Baker, and featuring a largely solid cast, the play comes across as a quiet but thought-provoking parable about the human capacity to make connections, and find meaning, in a chaotic world.
Reflective and poetic, rather than conventionally suspenseful, “The Electric Baby” centers on a car accident caused by Helen (Cam Magee) in her hometown of Pittsburgh. The accident injures Ambimbola (J. Shawn Durham), a Nigerian-born taxi driver who is married to Natalia (Jennifer J. Hopkins), an immigrant from Romania. Also affected is Rozie (Sarah Taurchini), a moody and vulnerable part-time escort whose best friend is killed in the crash.
As guilt and bereavement harrow Rozie, Helen, and Helen’s husband, Reed (William Aitken), Natalia endures her own ordeal: She and Ambimbola are parents to a baby that glows, apparently because of a rare medical condition. Throughout the production, Hopkins’s Natalia remains on a raised platform at the back of the stage, watching over — and often talking to — a glowing bassinet. (Betsy Zuck designed the elegantly spare set.) Wry and canny, Natalia is given to telling stories and sharing quirky folk remedies. (Have a headache? Try a banana peel on your forehead.) She sometimes directs this stream of idiosyncratic wisdom directly at the audience.
Hopkins suggests the pain, courage and weariness that underlie Natalia’s chatty manner. The other acting standouts include Taurchini, who brings out Rozie’s confusion and anger, and Kiernan McGowan, whose roles include Dave, a chipper waiter at a hamburger joint that offers 37 condiments. McGowan also transitions deftly into the spectral presence of Rozie’s dead friend: These phantasmagoric sequences, given clarity by Katie McCreary’s lighting design, point to a mode of explosive grief that is distinct from Helen’s aching sorrow or Natalia’s heroic stoicism.
Aitken is a tad stiff as Reed, but Magee ably channels Helen’s stages of bereavement. Durham paints Ambimbola in broad strokes, but he does bring out the character’s charisma and sense of humor.
In one interwoven scene, Natalia and Ambimbola — in different parts of Pittsburgh — relate their own versions of a Yoruba folk tale about the genesis of the moon. The image of the glowing moon, echoing the look of the glowing infant, captures the sense of mystery at the heart of “The Electric Baby,” which won the American Theatre Critics Association’s Francesca Primus Prize, a major award, in 2013. (Zadravec’s other works include “Honey Brown Eyes,” which won best new play at the Helen Hayes Awards after Theater J staged it in 2008.)
Why does tragedy strike one person and not another? How do people heal after terrible events? What is so satisfying about hearing and telling stories? One can only wonder.
The Electric Baby by Stefanie Zadravec. Directed by Randy Baker; costume design, Frank Labovitz; sound, Thomas Sowers; props, Debra Kim Sivigny; assistant director, Paul Lysek; assistant lighting designer, Nate Collard. About 100 minutes. Tickets: $15-$30. Through May 15 at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St NE. Call 202-399-7993 or visit atlasarts.org or rorschachtheatre.com.