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‘Smudge’ disturbing, compelling and ultimately heartbreaking

Stevie Chaddock Lambert (left) Scott Allen Luke star Ka-Tet Theatre Company’s Chicago premiere “Smudge” Athenaeum Theatre. | Phoby Andrew Cioffi

Stevie Chaddock Lambert (left) and Scott Allen Luke star in Ka-Tet Theatre Company’s Chicago premiere of “Smudge,” at the Athenaeum Theatre. | Photo by Andrew Cioffi

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When: Through June 23

Where : Ka-Tet Theatre at Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport

Tickets: $25

Info: (773) 935-6875;

Run time: 95 minutes, with no intermission

Updated: July 1, 2013 6:25AM

It is the nightmare, whether spoken or unspoken, of every prospective parent. While the vast majority of babies arrive crinkled and wailing, but with everything intact, there is always the statistically real possibility that something will go terribly wrong, and that extreme physical and mental “anomalies” will take hold.

And so it is with the daughter born to the young couple in “Smudge,” Rachel Axler’s brutally honest, at moments irritating, yet ultimately compelling play, now in a strongly realized Ka-Tet Theatre production.

When we first meet her, Colby Stillman (Stevie Chaddock Lambert) is in the later stages of her first pregnancy and trying to decipher an in-utero ultrasound picture with her husband, Nick (Scott Allen Luke), a demographer. Soon Cassandra (in Greek mythology, a woman both beautiful and prophetic) is born, rushed into the ICU and fully intubated. There will be no “new baby” photographs, proud birth announcements or happy phone calls to grandma. The baby, severely malformed both physically and mentally, has one eye and is missing limbs.

Once home, the unseen being is confined to a carriage hooked up to elaborate tubing and a constantly beeping monitor (“Smudge Technician” Dan Meisner is a crucial unseen force). Colby is in meltdown — consumed with rage and disgust, and at moments close to crossing the line from neglect to abuse. In one particularly horrific moment she takes a pair of scissors and cuts off the unnecessary parts of a onesie. In a more hopeful moment she is sure her daughter is responding to a waltz.

The baby’s father, who can escape to work, is quieter but every bit as deeply distraught. And the pair’s marriage, not surprisingly, becomes strained to the extreme. Nick’s rambunctious older brother, Pete (Andrew Marchetti), the father of healthy twins, tries to help, but he falls short.

Among the blunt questions asked are: What box do you check for this baby on a census form? Is she dead or alive? Is she a zero or a one?

It is all horrifying as well as heartbreaking. And Axler (a playwright who also has won two Emmy Awards as a writer for “The Daily Show”) never takes the easy way out. There is nothing sentimental or consoling about this play — only the exposure of the rawest nerves and most primal responses.

Director Allison Shoemaker and her actors never veer from the course. And Lambert is particularly brave and impressive in her portrayal of a character who does not make a “noble” adjustment or melt into fully nurturing maternal acceptance.

The one nagging question here is a wholly rational one: Why did the Stillmans’ doctors not detect the problems? But “Smudge” is not a medical procedural. It is a pure existential meditation.

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