Back in the olden days, when I was a wee one, my dad used to play recordings of an old radio show called Inner Sanctum — a mystery series that aired in the 1940s and ’50s. I was more familiar with the sound of the creaky door that heralded those episodes than anyone not alive in 1952 should be. Whenever we would hear a creaky door, my sister and I (neither of whom are in our 80s, by the way) would say, “It’s like Inner Sanctum!”
There is something undeniably immersive about sitting in the dark and listening to those radio mysteries, even for kids raised on a steady diet of TV. And that’s the aesthetic Ghost River Theatre is aiming for with their COVID-ready online production of Tomorrow’s Child, based on the short story by Ray Bradbury. The company premiered the show in 2014, and it was presented again as part of High Performance Rodeo in 2016, with the audience blindfolded and led into their seats in the theatre for a surround-sound, audio-only experience.
This is a newly remastered binaural version of the show, which is not the same as stereo but just Google it because honestly I can’t describe it properly. This time, it’s designed to be experienced via headphones on your personal device (blindfold encouraged), and audio engineer Carolina Rodriguez uses it to create the initially disorienting sense of actually being in the room with the performers sitting on either side of you. The sound design by Eric Rose and Matthew Waddell is complex and layered, and at times overwhelming, despite being restricted to one of the senses.
The story, originally published in 1948 as The Shape of Things, is set in a Jetsons-like 1988, in which instead of a flying car, Peter (Tyrell Crews) and Polly (Anna Cummer) take their personal helicopter to the hospital when Polly is in labour with their first child. Peter is still relegated to the waiting room, where there is a vending machine that dispenses highballs (love ya, 1948). Polly is ushered into the Birth Mech room by Dr Wolcott (David van Belle), and assured that “you shouldn’t feel a thing,” as the mod-cons include a guaranteed painless delivery. Physically painless, but emotionally wrenching for the new parents when something goes horribly wrong, and their child is accidentally born into another dimension. To those in this dimension, he appears as a blue pyramid with tentacles, and Peter is horrified when he is introduced to his son, calling him “a nightmare” and “a freak.”
The text was adapted by Ghost River’s Eric Rose, Matthew Waddell and David van Belle, and they have taken some liberties with the more dated aspects of the source text. But they have maintained much of the original tone, which is about as on-the-nose as it can be in terms of a mid-century experience of parents whose children are born with disabilities. Dr Wolcott assures Peter that his son is healthy and happy, but that “he will need to be protected — people will tear him apart.” Polly and Peter do their best to communicate with their child and they love him despite the gap between their expectations and reality, although they confine themselves to home out of fear of their neighbours’ reactions to the child.
In a post-show chat, Eric Rose talked about the initial staging of this show, in which audiences gave up more than the usual control by allowing themselves to be led blindfolded into the theatre. He pointed out that they arranged swivel chairs “to give the audience some agency in how they experienced the sound.” In this production, the audience has the ultimate agency — I chose to close my eyes and listen while sitting on my couch, intermittently cursing the woman with the weed-whacker who seemed to be loitering rather particularly outside my living room window. Someone knocked on my door while Peter and Polly were considering names for their progeny, so I was briefly interrupted during the best part of the show. Despite the careful pre-show instructions, one can imagine that audiences will listen to the show in a wide variety of ways, and there is an interesting paradox between the rigid control of the recorded performance and the reality of the viewer’s context, over which the creators have to completely relinquish control. Nothing new for traditional recorded media, but this is precisely the inverse of the theatre artist’s usual concerns.
Having spent some time on the internet looking at film and stage versions of the story, I’m pretty confident that Tomorrow’s Child is most effective either in print or in this sound-only scenario. Many designers have demonstrably tried and failed to convey anything even slightly anthropomorphic out of a blue pyramid (with or without tentacles) over the years. But close your eyes and listen, and you can indeed imagine it. It is certainly hard to envision how a theatre designer would convincingly suggest a crisis in the futuristic delivery room tech, but it is all the more ominous precisely because you can’t see what’s happening.
Like many online experiments by theatre companies during COVID-19 so far, this isn’t exactly theatre. But if you’re in theatre withdrawal and craving a fix from some very talented local theatre types, this is an intriguing way to spend a little less than an hour that blissfully doesn’t involve staring at a screen.
Tomorrow’s Child runs online June 5,6 and 11,12 and 13 at 8 p.m. For tickets and more information go to vertigotheatre.com.
Lori Montgomery is a former FFWD theatre critic who practices medicine to support her writing habit.