KPBS AIRDATE: January 11, 1995
Is it a baby — or just a bunch of cells? And is its elimination the termination of an unwanted pregnancy, or is it murder? No current controversy is as fraught with fanaticism as the issue of abortion, fanaticism that fills the air with vitriolic debate — and deadly bullets. Set against the virulent backdrop of the past weeks of abortion clinic mayhem, “Keely and Du” comes at an eerily appropriate time.
Keely is a young, pregnant woman, a victim of a brutal rape by her estranged husband. On the way into an Ohio abortion clinic, she is abducted by a group of religious, anti-abortion zealots who call themselves Operation Retrieval. With the intent of detaining her until she gives birth, they hold her captive in a Rhode Island basement, handcuffed to an iron bed. She is attended by Du, a registered nurse in her mid-sixties. And forced by Walter, a smarmy and sanctimonious pastor, to look at pictures of abortions in process, to read the Bible, to hear endless, droning statistics about the pro-life agenda. Keely maintains her anger, resentment and unsuitability for motherhood.
Gradually, she and Du begin to form a bond. Two women, manipulated into a certain situation, fiercely defensive in their abortion stance, each for a fairly good reason. The extreme ends of the abortion continuum are shown, but between them, perhaps a potential bridge, is the personal story, the human connection that is in itself a strong argument.
“Keely and Du” received the American Theatre Critics Association Best New Play Award of 1994. It was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. The author is unknown. Credited to Jane Martin, which is a pseudonym, it is not even clear if the writer is an individual or a group, male or female.
The play was written to be performed without intermission, and that should be respected. Producer-director Stuart Hynson Culpepper, who raised the money for this production himself, chose to break the tension and have a half-time interval. But the piece would be more powerful without the break. There is mounting dramatic tension in the 18 short scenes, even though at times we feel as if we are waiting out this pregnancy in real time.
The first act is choppy, but the long silences are compelling. In terms of dramatic detail, I was offended at the thought that a nurse, in trying to liven up a pregnant patient’s birthday, would smuggle in a six-pack of beer. But I was, like the rest of the audience, swept up in the climactic energy, which culminates when Walter brings in a brainwashed, becalmed, Christianized Cole (Keely’s husband), to beg for forgiveness. The denouement is shocking, not totally unpredictable, but very powerful.
What makes everything work, besides Culpepper’s taut direction, is a terrific cast, headed by the ever-amazing Laurie Williams, and a strong, solid, compassionate Terry Eaton as Du. Although the controversy cards seem to be stacked in favor of choice, it is Du whose character is most reasonable and sympathetic, and this strengthens the play. The playwright has avoided an excess of polemic and preaching, but somehow the piece appeals more to the mind than the heart. It may not be as emotionally gripping as you’d like, but it throttles you intellectually.
I’m Pat Launer, KPBS radio.
©1995 Patté Productions Inc.