DC Theater Arts Review: c21’s EXPECTING

A deaf and hearing couple meet their unborn child in magical and poetic ‘Expecting’ at Keegan Theatre

Having a baby might be the closest one might come to magic. Expecting, a one-act by Charis McRoberts of Belfast, Northern Ireland, tells a tale as old as time — that of a couple becoming a family. The magic in McRoberts’ 2023 play rests with the conception of this love story as a conversation among three characters, in this case Shauna, an art-school–trained photographer; Robbie, a working-class bloke; and their yet-to-be-born child.

But first, a magical underwater ballet filmed by Graeme Roger projected on the back scrim lets the audience know that the realism of the couple’s life to come is wedded in the magic of rushing swirls and undulations created by currents ebbing and surging just beneath the water’s surface.

Produced by c21, a touring ensemble based in Northern Ireland, Expecting, a U.S. premiere now at Keegan Theatre through May 25, poetically gives voice to the hopes, fears, dreams and anxieties of a young Irish couple. Deaf actor Paula Clarke, who plays Shauna, both speaks and uses ASL — American Sign Language — as does her hearing costar, Eoghan Lamb, who easily leans into the dad-bod look in his loose-fitting T-shirts and shorts. Clarke is luminous, her ginger hair pulled into a twist, her expressive face and eyes drawing focus as she elegantly and specifically signs. Lamb holds his own as both foil and support to her vivacity.

While Expecting is written as a two-hander, often the stage invites a third performer on: sign language interpreter Mandy Welly, who provides Shauna’s spoken voice, when Shauna’s signed monologues and dialogues veer to the complex. As an interpreter, Welly allows Clarke to control the emotional weight of these sometimes loving, sometimes fraught conversations. While the baby, in utero, does not appear, McRoberts, along with creative director Stephen Kelly, have given this child-in-waiting a full-blown presence and personality — stretching the idea that so many parents-to-be wonder and worry about until they meet their newborn. Projected onto the backdrop, hand lettered and illustrated missives, crafted by Fergus Wachala-Kelly, provide an in-utero perspective: “I’m floating, I think? I wasn’t here a minute ago … Who is me? … Out there it’s light … Maybe I’ll swim forever and stay here where I’m safe and warm.”

On designer Duncan Gordan’s mostly spare stage — save for an alcove and a few boxes that serve as seating — the third character, Shauna and Robbie’s baby, is given a sweet childlike voice by André Thiébot. These baby musings speak of the warm, safe wonder of living in utero, and the curiosity and fear of leaving this safe space.

With the multiple means of communicating from spoken dialogue, to lip reading, sign language, and written projections, director Kelly has bult a more accessible theatrical experience for the Deaf community. At the same time this elegant methodology raises awareness for hearing audience members. Expectations shift on both sides of the hearing-deaf divide in the intimate theater space as the audience engages in the magic of more fully accessible drama without wires and headsets and volume controls. What Kelly and McRoberts have created with Expecting is an immersive theater experience that works for a range of audience members, singling out neither the hearing nor the deaf.

As well, Expecting remains, foremost, a story of falling in love. Yet it’s more than a simple romance. The partnership between characters Shauna and Robbie is not without conflicts, deeply held secrets and miscommunications. Communicating serves as a keystone in any intimate relationship, of course; when one partner is deaf and the other hearing and not raised with sign language, the challenges multiply. Add the demands of making one’s way in a hearing world while pregnant, giving birth and maneuvering early stages of caring for an infant. The conflicts multiply. Author McRoberts points to additional complexities like when Shauna’s medical team provides less attentive care because she is deaf. From requiring a sign interpreter to see her general practitioner, who scoffs at technical alternatives, to needing a vibration-activated baby monitor to alert her to her newborn’s cries, Expecting shares with hearing audiences overlooked aspects of living in a hearing world when one is deaf.

But at its heart, Expecting is a love story, one that should have its happily-ever-after ending.