At the opening of her solo work Birth Story, Hillary Baack peers out at the audience in the intimate environs of the Barrow Theater and flashes a warm, infectious smile each time she makes eye contact. Having established that connection, she begins to sign words animatedly. "Let me tell you that again in your language," she says with a chuckle, breaking the silence. "I've got three things. Three problems. Three disabilities. Three things to freak you out. Three burdens. Three blessings. Three gifts."
In the lisping cadences of the deaf, Baack tells us how her father realized when she was 6 months old that she was deaf, except for residual hearing in the lower registers. "Let me tell you that story again," she says, beginning to sign for the deaf audience members seated to the right of the stage.
Thus does 25-year-old Baack, an actress making her debut as a playwright, reel us into her world in this modest, autobiographical play that has the feel of an intimate conversation with a stranger.
In a series of vivid anecdotes, Baack tells us about her brush with death as a newborn, how the toes of her left foot fell off due to a blood clot during that episode (thing No. 2), a doctor's misdiagnosis of brain damage when she was 3, and another near-fatal illness in eighth grade that led doctors to discover she had contracted hepatitis B from a tainted blood transfusion (thing No. 3).
You might expect such a harrowing tale to rouse our pity or sympathy, but Baack is so personable and infuses her account with such zest, humor, and rich detail that her story instead creates a strong sense of connectedness to her. We root for her as she grapples with her disabilities and confronts the graceless reactions they often provoke in others.
Director and producer Alex P. Baack, Hillary's husband, has mounted a spare production, keeping the focus squarely on Baack's narrative. The lighting by Stuart Nelson is mostly naturalistic, and Stuart Dance is light-handed with the sound design. The set, by Kyle Nelson, consists of a bare stage with a wicker chair and a small trunk, out of which Baack pulls simple props such as a green bathing cap and goggles, a cloth mannequin, and cheerleading pompoms.
From a corner of the stage, LeTishia Whitney signs those long sections of the play that Baack does not. Besides serving the deaf audience, her expressive translation offers a visual echo of Baack's words.
The hourlong play flags near the end when Baack recounts recent experiences that do not have the same resonance as her coming-of-age stories, and when she drops her jaunty tone for a self-described "rant." But these are minor complaints. It is a pleasure to watch Baack's gradual acceptance and embrace of her "birth story" in this affecting play. We come away with a deeper appreciation of how life is lived in the interstices of what we are given and what we make of it.