Tom Stoppard has a reputation for being a cold, clever, intellectual-in-the-bad-sense playwright–or at least he did before writing Shakespeare in Love–but I’ve always found his work to be bursting with passion. It’s just that those passions tend to be directed toward ideas and beliefs, rather than whether so-and-so can lure thingummy into the sack without whatzername finding out. If that sounds too abstract and bloodless for you, cast your mind back to the 20th century: An awful lot of blood got spilled then, and much of it wasn’t over sex.

The passion that runs through Night and Day is the importance of freedom–specifically the freedom to publish newspapers filled with cheesecake photos, half-witted opinions, sex scandals and, every now and then, the uncomfortable truth. The play takes place in 1979 in an imaginary, Angola-like African state on the verge of civil war. Those on hand for the pending conflagration include a press photographer, two reporters (one cynical, one idealistic), a woman whose first marriage ended in a blare of tabloid headlines, and the country’s thuggish, London-educated dictator.

Lynda Clark plays the woman, Ruth Carson, as a spellbinding jumble of contradictions: sarcastic, charming, needy, hard-bitten, dreamy and, above all, vulnerable. It’s a wonderful performance by one of the area’s best and loveliest actresses. A funny one, too–though I won’t spoil the jokes by retelling them. David Henderson and Andrew Rein are just as good as the reporters (though Henderson’s role is flashier); their debates on the value of free speech have a point and wit equal to Shaw. As the photo-grapher, Mark Filiaci displays a down-to-earth decency that gives added weight to his delivery of the play’s simple, too-often-forgotten moral: “Information, in itself, about anything, is light”–and life is worse in places where everybody is kept in the dark.

The rest of the cast–including sixth-grader Clint Lineau as Carson’s son–is up to the high standards set by the leads, and Jerome Davis has directed them with a zip and precision that puts real steel in Stoppard’s verbal swordplay. Also outstanding are Robert John Andrusko’s set, Rich LaBach’s ’70s-greatest-hits sound design and Charlie Morrison’s lighting.

After years of trying without success to have a child of their own, a middle-aged Chicago couple decides to adopt a newborn, only to see their intended bundle of joy born with hydrocephalus, retardation and little chance of survival. That’s the premise of Kristine Thatcher’s Emma’s Child, the first offering from Taravita Productions, a spinoff of Triangle Arts Express, which was founded several years ago to package local theater excursions and has now branched out into staging shows of its own.

Given the play’s subject matter, it may seem flippant–even tasteless–to complain that Taravita’s production lacks pizzazz, but I can’t think of a better way to put it. As directed by UNC-Chapel Hill faculty member Dede Corvenus on Manbites Dog’s stage in Durham, Emma’s Child comes across as a well intentioned but literal-minded interpretation of a well-intentioned but literal-minded script. Its heart is gold, but its feet are lead.

The play would be less frustrating if author Thatcher didn’t keep touching on potentially dramatic situations–a best friend’s troubled marriage, a hospital torn between compassion and self-protection–only to skitter away from them. She even fudges the central conflict between the adoptive parents-to-be (wife Jean wants to keep the baby, husband Harry doesn’t) by making sure they never have to face the long-term consequences of their decision. She also has a dangerous tendency to turn her “big” scenes into static, pseudo-poetic monologues, separated by long stretches of drab chat.

Diane Gilboa has some effective moments as Jean, especially in the second act, but she can’t overcome the fact that her character’s immediate, all-consuming bond with the baby seems arbitrary and undermotivated. (To head off your objection: Yes, I know these things happen fairly often in real life, but it’s a writer’s job to explore how they happen.) Most of the rest of the 11-member cast come across as either tentative or colorless, or both. In fact, the whole production seems uninspired by anything other than the desire to put on a play about this particular, heart-rending subject. It’s a worthy motive, but it’s not enough. EndBlock