Until Anita Hill’s allegations, Clarence Thomas’s refusal to indicate a stance on abortion was the greatest source of debate as to his ability to serve on the Supreme Court. Panelists discussing the issue on the Ron Reagan Show about a week ago all but got into a fistfight over it. The mere mention of the word “abortion” is incendiary.
So it’s easy to see why Talisman Theatre was drawn to James Leo Herlihy and William Noble’s Blue Denim. But though an abortion figures prominently in the story, it is not a play about abortion. Blue Denim is a simple domestic drama, set in the 1950s, about a family that doesn’t know how to communicate. That lack of communication leads to a young girl’s illegal abortion–but it is the family repercussions that force the play’s climax. Unwanted pregnancy and abortion act only as devices to expose the Bartley family’s domestic crisis.
In this naive play written in and about an innocent time, the characters are all standard-issue 50s family: a caring but emotionally inept father, a sweet but passive mother, a girl next door (both literally and figuratively), and so on. The play begins and ends around the Bartley dinner table. We immediately discover that the teenaged son, Arthur, is in turmoil: subtly, he runs from the table. The family dog has been put to sleep without his knowledge or consent. His mother sends her husband after the boy to comfort him, and Major Bartley explains that the dog was old and sick–they were just trying to save Arthur the pain of confronting that. Arthur will not be comforted, however, and blames his father, saying he doesn’t understand him. This incident reveals the family psychology, and the problems to come.
Three different crises beset the family: a financial quarrel between the parents, sister Lillian’s lout of a boyfriend, and Arthur’s first forays into love and sex, which lead to a pregnancy. Arthur makes a feeble attempt to ask his parents for help, but because they’re distracted by their other problems, he gives up and decides to figure things out for himself; of course, his underdeveloped reasoning skills just get him into more trouble. He decides that his girlfriend has to have an abortion, since they’re too young to be married legally and he can’t support her anyway. But abortion is both illegal and expensive, so Arthur steals the money from his parents. When he gets caught, the whole thing blows up in his face–but Arthur finally realizes that he can talk to his parents. The scripted finale is Arthur and his father sitting down to a big family meal, after which they’ll have a long heart-to-heart.
I say “scripted” because director Mark Hardiman has added a visual tag to the Talisman production, inspired no doubt by the 1960 movie version of Blue Denim. Although in the stage play the girlfriend, Janet, is all right after her nasty experience, in the movie she dies as a result of the abortion–following the Hollywood formula in which “bad” girls must be punished. Hardiman seems intrigued by this ending, so he adds a quick visual flash of Janet clutching her stomach and sinking to the ground as flashing red lights blaze. Though visually striking, the image doesn’t fit with the show’s otherwise positive ending, and muddies the conclusions about the family that the text seems to draw.
What this startling ending does accomplish is to bring the abortion question back to the forefront. It is a reminder that teenagers are often frightened and poorly informed, which calls into question the issue of parental consent. I was reminded of the prolife couple who always thought their daughter would consult them; she didn’t, got an illegal abortion, and died. They’re now actively prochoice. The scene in which Janet talks about her experience at the doctor’s is reminiscent of Polly Bergen’s moving account of her own abortion at age 17: she nearly died, and her uterus was permanently scarred. Clearly Talisman wants to bring the issue forward, as it has Chicago Abortion Fund pamphlets available in the lobby. And I applaud its intention. But the question remains: Is this really what the play is about?
I don’t believe it is. The issue that is repeatedly discussed, and with which the plays seems to conclude, is family unity. But Herlihy and Noble don’t deal with the play’s domestic crisis in a satisfying way. Arthur is constantly whining about his terrible parents, but Mr. and Mrs. Bartley come off as very sympathetic characters–loving, caring people, June and Ward Cleaver but with troubled children. True, Art’s parents don’t talk to him much, but that seems to be more his fault than theirs. Though the father is a bit bumbling and silly, he does make a few attempts to bond with his son, who rebuffs him. Though his mother gets sidetracked by her other problems, when she finally asks it’s Arthur who decides not to tell her about his troubles. Both parents talk about what a good boy he is and how proud they are of him. Both are extremely understanding and loving when the crisis comes to a head. And Arthur comes off as a big baby who can’t tell a good family when it’s right under his nose.
Talisman offers a very competent production of what is ultimately a trite and problematic script, though Hardiman’s staging tries to give the events more weight than they deserve. No character ever leaves the stage area; when not in a scene, they sit on the outskirts as silent observers. Though dramatically this is a strong choice, it goes against what the script suggests. The staging implies the characters all know what is going on but simply do nothing about it. But the story’s crises come about because the family is not paying attention–they’re basically good people whose “crime” is an inability to see what’s going on.
The acting is generally strong. Particularly good are the parents, Dean R. Schmitt and Shawna Tucker. Schmitt, who manages to pull off a role for which he is clearly too young, has a good sense of Major Bartley’s combination of befuddlement and anger. Tucker could have stepped right out of The Donna Reed Show. Mary Hatch as the prissy Lillian and Matt Yde as Arthur struggle with the fact that they’re too old for their teenaged roles. But along with the rest, they ultimately pull out the emotional tricks needed to give the play its due.
Jeffrey Childs’s lighting, which produces complex effects in a space the size of my living room, is very impressive. So is the wonderful sound design by Matt Minde, a vaguely threatening, almost parodically sinister combination of the Twin Peaks theme and West Side Story.