Since the late 1990s, a subculture has burgeoned around the world based on a craft called "reborning."
The goal is to create dolls so lifelike that they are virtually indistinguishable from babies.
Sometimes people whose own baby has died commission reborning artists to create a replica. Sometimes empty-nesters have them made because they miss having children in the house. Some people just collect lifelike dolls. There have been reports of people smashing car windows to "rescue" reborn dolls out of locked cars in parking lots.
The craft and the culture is the impetus and central metaphor for Zayd Dohrn's widely acclaimed play "Reborning," which gets its regional premiere this weekend at Sarasota's Urbanite Theatre.
"I didn't know much about this world until I started researching for this play," said Brendon Fox, who's directing the Urbanite production. "People pay thousands of dollars to have reborning artists create these dolls. There are artists all over the world, from Australia to Germany."
It's detailed and painstaking work, Dohrn said. The artists add hair one strand at a time, for example.
In Dohrn's play, a reborning artist named Kelly, who has always kept an emotional distance from her creations and her customers, becomes personally enmeshed in one particular client and her doll.
Fox, who's based in Baltimore but was the second-year acting teacher at the FSU/Asolo Conservatory for Actor Training in Sarasota until 2013, said it's a perfect show for the intimate space at Urbanite.
"There are only three rows, so there's not a bad seat in the house," he said. "You get a close-up look, live and on video, of the intricately detailed work Kelly is doing. I can't imagine this play in a large theater."
A couple of real-life reborning artists worked as consultants on the Urbanite production. So the details of the craft are right, but they're not the point of the show.
"It's not play about creepy lifelike dolls," Fox said. "It's a deeper exploration of family and home and connections."
"Reborning" explores the relationship between an artist and her work, and uses that to look at the need for actual, tactile, non-symbolic human interaction.
It sounds heavy, but it's not, Fox said. "Reborning" is full of humor -- some reviewers have even referred to the play as a comedy -- and it makes for a fast-paced, entertaining and enlightening 85 minutes.
"Dohrn is an amazing writer," Fox said. "He does a great job of building intensity and then relieving it with wit and even humor. It's a non-stop roller coaster ride. Keep your hands and feet inside the car at all times. It doesn't let up for a minute, for the characters or for the audience."
Details: June 12-July 5, Urbanite Theatre, 1487 Second St., Sarasota. Show times: 8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets: $20; students with ID $5. Information: 941-321-1397, urbanitetheatre.com.
Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-708-7919.