The Electric Baby

Joshua Benjamin Productions
Burning Coal Theatre, Raleigh
Through Jan. 19

The Pelican

Owl Tree Theater for the People
The Green Monkey, Raleigh
Through Jan. 18

It is a truth rarely acknowledged by theater reviewers: No matter the play, the production you’ll see is frequently better than one we saw.

Opening night jitters will subside in subsequent performancesthat blown cue or line flub probably won’t be there the second time around. But how certain can we be that an actor and director will find the depths in a character that were absent on opening night?

Audiences change a show by their interaction with it. All but inevitably, that change is for the better. Each evening can be an experiment, in which the participants can ask, “What happens if we do it like this tonight?” Each night, a company can build on the information gained the nights before. Typically, critics catch companies only at the beginning of this process. Two recent openings are a case in point.

Director Joshua Benjamin has cast carefully for his production of The Electric Baby. Last Friday, on opening night, Lori Ingle Taylor still seemed caught between monologue and true conversation as Natalia, the Romanian mother of an unseen, magical and terminally ill infant. Some of that magic is already visible, in Arnold Chanakira’s compelling, awe-struck work as Natalia’s husband, Ambimbola. We also see a shift in Lofton Riser’s Rozie, a rough waitress and amateur sex worker, and Amada Scherle’s aching, bereft Helen, still grieving the loss of a child. Still, the ensemble hadn’t truly gelled on Friday night; it’s hard to say how much it will have by the time you catch this elliptical tale of human losses and unorthodox cures.

It’s clear that playwright and director Jesse Lowe aims toward the liturgical in The Pelican, a work about a whistle-blower (sharp-eyed Douglas Campen) in a U.S. military with an increasing capacity for war by remote control. While that happens, the protagonist’s mother (crisp Gilly Conklin) lectures on medieval lit, underscoring the sacramental sacrifice of those who act by conscience. But Lowe is still growing up in public in both of his roles in this production; by skimping in writing a one-dimensional villain (Jerry Zieman) and directing Laura Bradford as an unusually submissive Air Force general, using transparent expositional devices and more-convenient-than-believable plot devices. Lowe’s dialogue is glib in places and bad-spy-thriller in others. But when he considers the spiritual dimensions of sacrifice, something better shines through.

This article appeared in print with the headline “Opening nights.”