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If you surveyed a group of random strangers about the holidays, most would rank 'family' as the most important element of their celebrations. Much of our holiday entertainment is, at its core, about family - the devoted Cratchits in "A Christmas Carol", Clara's pesky brother in "The Nutcracker", "A Wonderful Life" and the Baileys. Family is also the centerpiece of CATASTROPHIC THEATRE'S less traditional holiday fare, BABY SCREAMS MIRACLE.

Claire Barron's edgy comedy/drama centers on a small, slightly dysfunctional family and their problems, the biggest of which is a massive storm system moving relentlessly their way. Barron is a Pulitzer finalist and Obie Award winning playwright whose religious upbringing informs this work directly. In fact, the play opens with a couple preparing for what we assume is an evening of marital sex but is in fact a prayer ritual.

BABY SCREAMS MIRACLE is not traditionally linear or even plot-driven - at its center is a family trying to survive some devastating storms, but the story unfolds through small scenes and vignettes that skip through time. It is replete with symbolic imagery - bathtubs as tornado shelters/wombs, swaddling, two pregnant women seeking shelter an inn - even this non-church going audience member got that reference. Is it about climate change - yes? Religion - yes, although prayer is used here as more of a plot device, an opportunity for characters to vocalize their inner thoughts. Mostly it is about family, about love and forgiveness and the indomitable, indefatigable human spirit.

This family is, indeed, dysfunctional - but in gentle, everyday ways rather than on "August Osage County" or "Buried Child" levels. Matriarch Carol, portrayed flawlessly by Catastrophic vet Tamarie Cooper, is very pregnant, very spirited and earnest. When Carol and husband Gabriel (a sincere, slightly dorky Greg Dean) speak their prayers aloud, hers are less 'world peace' and more forgiveness for unanswered emails. They share their home with their quirky young daughter Kayden, played with birdlike delicacy by Rachel Shaw. Shaw is an adult actress but I never doubted her performance as a troubled tween - she is captivating.

Carol and Greg also share a home with Carol's mother Barbara, a small town grandmother with a big mouth and a bigger heart. Rebecca Randall hits all the right notes here, balancing humor and strength with a feisty, folksy charm. On the first wave of the massive storm Cynthia arrives - a character I assumed to be Carol's sister but is an out-of-wedlock child Carol bore with Gabriel when they were teens, and gave up for adoption. The very talented Tasha Gorel, a newcomer to Catastrophic, turns in a transcendent performance as the lively, also pregnant Cynthia. Gorel is a perfect fit for this company and this play - she gives us some of the evening's most memorable moments. Her prayer/monologue about rage is a showstopper; there are moments between Cynthia and Kayden that are still with me.

As adroit as the performances are, the real star of this show is the storm. The work that went into creating and maintaining 100 minutes of catastrophic weather in this tiny black box space is remarkable. Wind machines, leaf blowers, trash and debris flying across the stage (including a trampoline at one point), windows and walls crashing and falling - I was literally on the edge of my seat. Through the projections, the incredibly detailed sound design and the lighting, the storm itself became a character. The design team of Ryan McGettigan (set design), Hudson Davis (lighting design), Tim Thomson (video design), Lauren Davis (prop design) and SFx coordinator Alexandra A. Hooper have created a cohesive, deft piece of stagecraft in this small space. We can see crew members dragging furniture and moving walls, and wreaking havoc with leaf blowers, but Catastrophic knows we can see them and doesn't pretend otherwise. They become part of the show.

Jeff Miller's wise direction doesn't try to answer too many of the questions the often convoluted script proposes. Miller just lets the charming, kooky, resourceful characters tell their stories and try to survive. At the height of the storm a stalwart Gabriel tries desperately to repair the house while chaos is still raging around him, begging helplessly to God/the Universe for it just to stop. I thought, "We know how this feels. Houston knows how this feels", and we get it. So does Catastrophic.

BABY SCREAMS MIRACLE runs through December 15th, with performances Thursday through Sunday. Catastrophic performs at MATCH, and is always a pay-what-you-can theatre.

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From This Author Suzanne Tidwell

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