The subject of adoption has fueled a spate of television movies, theatrical features and stage productions. “The Baby Dance,” a theater piece adapted for cable TV, mostly suffers from treading familiar ground — from the legal morass to the painful second thoughts experienced by the birth mother. Its take is a tad too clinical, and when the story finally asserts its unique voice, it comes too late and too briefly to afford the pic distinction. Nonetheless, a fine cast humanizes the material, allowing for a watchable, sometimes compelling small-screen drama.
In adapting her play, first-time director Jane Anderson dilutes some of the story’s power by attempting to give equal weight to both the biological and adoptive mothers of the piece.
Wanda LeFauve (Laura Dern) is a dirt-poor mother of four with an unemployed husband (Richard Lineback) living in a cramped trailer on the outskirts of Shreveport, La. Pregnant once again, she happens upon a newspaper ad placed by a couple hoping to adopt a healthy newborn. Summoning up her courage, Wanda makes the telephone call.
Beyond their infertility, the couple — Rachel (Stockard Channing) and Richard Luckman (Peter Riegert) — are very much the antithesis of the LeFauves: wealthy, Jewish urbanites from L.A. But both couples have at least one thing in common — a sense of caution. Their “Baby Dance” is an elaborate skirting of logistics, legal matters, fears, prejudices and a whole laundry list of matters to be addressed prior to the child’s birth.
The setup sounds promising enough on paper, but on film Anderson ruminates far too long on tensions that seem to take forever to come to a boil. There is unquestionable power in the way all concerned are willing to extend themselves — often to the point of humiliation — for tangible things. The Luckmans travel to Louisiana to check out the “donors” and swallow hard to pass themselves off as just plain folks. At the same time, the LeFauves pretend to conduct their lives with the quiet civility of the moneyed, which they could have learned only from bad movies. The pathos in these scenes is extraordinary.
It’s inevitable that an explosion will occur, and it’s a humdinger: When a seemingly trivial aside is misconstrued, the two women go at each other with hammer and tongs, unleashing all that’s been left unsaid. It’s a potent, overpowering moment; unfortunately, everything that follows is anticlimactic.
Anderson employs a simple, direct visual style that suits the quiet, insular nature of the story. But there’s a sameness to her pacing that tends to be numbing despite the emotional explosions that punctuate the narrative.
Though the principal performances are all strong, it’s really the two women who keep us watching “The Baby Dance.” In the flashier role, Dern strives not to make Wanda standard-issue white trash, nor mere victim or pariah — though she is a composite of all these things. Channing’s part is even more layered, as her character wrestles with doing the “right thing” without losing sight of the manipulations necessary to get what she wants.