It comes as no surprise to learn that Jane Cafarella, the writer of e-baby,is a former journalist who has spent much of her career writing for The Age in Melbourne.That’s because e-baby – her first full-length play – often reads a little like a news feature on commercial surrogacy: even-handed, meticulously researched, and with any difficult legal and ethical dilemmas dealt with systematically and without judgement. Consequently, e-baby is about as controversial as a wet sock. But what it lacks in dynamism, it more than makes up for in heart.
At the play’s centre are two women, each representing one half of the surrogacy equation. At one end is the ‘intended mother’ (IM), Catherine (Danielle Carter), a 45-year-old high-flying corporate lawyer who divides her time between London and New York. Sharp, efficient and well-travelled, with a flawless blonde bob and a penchant for designer handbags, she may come across as an emotionless autobot, but the pain she feels at being childless is all too real. After 18 IVF cycles and 11 punishing years trying to conceive, she is only too aware that surrogacy is her last chance for motherhood.
At the other end – and with the power to make it happen – is first-time surrogate mother Nellie (Gabrielle Scawthorn). A devoutly Catholic Bostonian and mother to two boys, her genuine willingness to help is unquestionable, even as her family’s disapproval and Catherine’s need for control over the pregnancy threatens to drive a wedge between them.
Catherine and Nellie’s story is told through conversations over the phone, Skype and occasionally face-to-face at doctor’s appointments in New York.Cafarella ensures both sides of the stories are told: the trials and isolation of carrying a child that isn’t yours, and the pain of being blocked by an unwilling body from a part of life that most women assume they will experience.
In one memorable scene, the pair discuss over Skype the finer points of the contract between them: what to do in the case of foetal abnormalities; what would happen if Nellie died during the course of the pregnancy. Catherine’s businesslike tone and cool demeanour are in stark contrast to the highly emotionally-charged subject matter, yet it’s a credit to Cafarella that she’s not afraid to present Catherine as a bit of a bitch at times. This is a complicated woman, as capable of relentless, condescending ambition as she is a desperate – and increasingly demented – desire to have a child of her own. Carter makes both sides of Catherine’s personality utterly believable.
The character of Nellie is more nuanced: while Scawthorn lets Nellie’s natural sweetness and naiveté shine through, she’s also not afraid to reveal the steel at her core as she grapples with her religious beliefs and Catherine’s increasingly intrusive demands on her time and her body.
There are moments of genuine feeling: (spoiler alert) later in the play the pair watch a larger-than-life heart-rate monitor (projections by AV designer Christopher Page) flicker and die – and even in Catherine’s stitched-up state, the wave of grief both characters feel is palpable.
While it’s rarely surprising, e-baby feels true to life and explores with empathy and gentle humour the personal dilemmas surrounding this most modern of parenting transactions. Although it errs a little too much on the earnest side, it’s impossible not to feel a connection to this surrogacy journey.