Birth of a Notion

To paraphrase Oscar Wilde: "When the gods wish to punish us, they grant our prayers." For the past two seasons, I have been thumping a drum, decrying the decreased relevance of theatre to contemporary culture. Now, In Mixed Company has taken me at my word and is presenting a play throbbing with relevance: the pseudonymous Jane Martin's Keely & Du.

This piece, pitched at the level of hysterical propaganda, actually won the 1993 American Theatre Critics Association Award for Outstanding Play produced outside New York, so be warned that there are highly qualified people who will disagree with the assessment that follows.

Keely & Du was first produced by the Humana Festival at the Actors Theatre of Louisville. The author's identity remains unknown, despite the 15 years of speculation that followed the auspicious debut of Martin's Talking With back in 1981. I am convinced that the hand of at least one woman is contributing to Martin's oeuvre, but the prime suspect for authorship now seems to be a collaboration--most likely between Louisville director Jon Jory and his wife. In any case, what started out as an intriguing mystery (rivaling the anonymous authorship of the current best seller Primary Colors) has devolved into a severe case of "Who cares?!"

Yet Martin's plays continue to fascinate enterprising producers. Last season, Actors Theatre of Phoenix fizzled with Martin's half-baked attempt at commercial comedy Criminal Hearts, and ASU has announced plans to mount Martin's multimedia venture Vital Signs next season.

Meanwhile, we are left with the tedium of dealing with Keely & Du, a vitriolic polemic about a controversy that separates many of us: the critical issue of abortion.

A woman's right to choose whether to carry a pregnancy to its inevitable lifelong consequences continues to be a burning national issue. Any theatre piece that can give us a new perspective on this tragic dilemma pitting mother against fetus should be welcome.

Unfortunately, the dramatic cards are so stacked in Keely & Du that any possibility of enlightenment is sacrificed to an emotional diatribe.

The scenario is simple. Christian conservatives hiding behind impersonal plastic masks abduct Keely, a lovely young woman who has been raped by her ex-husband. They forcibly remove her from Cincinnati, Ohio, to an undisclosed basement prison, where she meets Du, her caretaker. She is handcuffed to a bed and bombarded with incessant harassment from a zealous fundamentalist minister. Regardless of your posture on the moral question underlying this drama, in dramatic terms, where can your sympathies lie? With the woman's abusers? I don't think so.

Martin does a disservice to the concept that a woman has a right to choose the fate of her own body by framing a legitimate debate in indefensible terms. The brutality we witness onstage cannot justify the thesis cited: that the 1.5 million abortions performed each year in the United States amount to a holocaust, and therefore must be stopped at all costs.

The right-to-life movement has produced extremists who have terrorized and murdered doctors and women throughout the country and, certainly, these acts of terrorism are as indefensible as those of the Oklahoma City bombers. The terrorism cannot be justified, no matter how fervent the belief.

But rather than try to help us understand the beliefs that are used to justify such extremism, Martin sensationalizes the agonizing personal nature of the private decision.

Compounding this egregious tip of the scales, director Kevin Kerrigan has staged the play with the grace of a rhinoceros. When Du is required to be aware of a change in the relationship to her charge, Ellen Benton is directed to stare intensely at Keely's hand on her shoulder before she speaks her next line. With direction like this, even Meryl Streep would seem stilted. Kerrigan has encouraged his actors to shed tears on every possible occasion, and the melodramatic script provides myriad opportunities. Unfortunately, with the stage awash in tears, there is an abundance of dry eyes in the audience. It is difficult to be emotionally engaged with a thesis when it is presented with such shrill insistence, no matter how worthy its claim.

Rising above the hokey demands of her director, Shana Bell, in the role of Keely, manages to give a rich exploration of a woman trapped in circumstances beyond her control. As a rape victim forced to endure kidnaping, physical torture, emotional bludgeoning and a repulsive reunion with her rapist/ex-husband, Bell maintains a low-key honesty that is refreshingly rendered in the present tense. Her screams are truly tortured and stir our deepest pity. Bell shows that she could play this role with one hand tied behind her back--as she literally does.

Others in the cast are not so gifted, and their leaden efforts produce as many laughs as groans. As Du, Ellen Benton labors to present a simple woman with deep beliefs, but her performance is undermined by constant indication of what we are expected to accept as real emotion. She does project a warmth and sensitivity that is winning, but there is no enlightenment as to how this lady could subjugate her sensitivity to the rigid demands of her conscience. The Christians are portrayed as such blatant villains that Benton cannot communicate their justification with any conviction.

The remainder of the cast members should be relieved that I demur from mentioning them by name. The best forum for writing about an issue of conscience is the essay. As passionate as an author may be about a subject, a play demands evenhanded dramatization. An audience must be moved emotionally and intellectually to consider the consequences of actions taken by the protagonist against obstacles. We must find Iago seductive if we are to be horrified by his ability to wreak havoc on the innocent love of Othello and Desdemona.

When the stakes are high and one side is given moral high ground to prevent a true examination of the dilemma, there is no drama. Instead, there is propaganda. Martin's clumsy dramaturgy is a flagrant invasion of the audience's right to empathize with any and all of the characters presented. I defy anyone to sympathize with the cardboard Nazi represented by the character of the Jerry Falwell-type minister.

While I applaud Martin and In Mixed Company for the moral urgency behind the play, the preaching is as intolerable as the inevitable gore. If you elect to see Keely & Du, be warned: Go on an empty stomach.--Marshall W. Mason

In Mixed Company's production of Keely & Du continues through Saturday, May 11, at 7th Street Theater, 3302 North Seventh Street.