Firstborn Productions

at Chicago Dramatists

Don’t Promise

Stockyards Theatre Project

at Breadline Theatre

By Kelly Kleiman

The choice whether or not to have children seems to be much on the public mind just now, most recently in the form of a New York Times Magazine cover story on the divide between child haves and have-nots-and-don’t-wants. Procreation itself hasn’t changed much, but its social meaning seems to be exceptionally fluid. Maybe this controversy is just quadrennial hysteria incited by the presidential campaign. Or maybe it presages some new phase of the battle for control over the means of reproduction.

Whatever the cause, it’s more than coincidence–and less than encouraging–that in a single weekend two theater companies should open works centered around the idea that if wives don’t produce offspring, their husbands are bound to find women who will. Even more daunting is the fact that the play endorsing this notion is powerful and persuasive while the one critiquing it is embarrassingly weak.

Cyber:womb is an accomplished piece by award-winning Canadian playwright Vivienne Laxdal, given an impeccable U.S. premiere by director Gregory Gerhard and Firstborn Productions. The play is classic Canadian eco-social dystopianism in the tradition of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Timothy Findley’s Headhunter and The Butterfly Plague. (What the hell is going on up there, anyway? What is there about the Canadian sensibility that would produce a literature compounding “The government runs everything, and it all sucks” with “The present is polluted and the future is lethal”? Maybe South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut had it right.)

Laxdal’s tale, set in an off-kilter present, follows Oneida (Hemmendy Nelson)–whose married name, tellingly, is Mrs. Kilborn–as she turns herself almost literally inside out trying to get pregnant by in vitro fertilization, then descends into madness when she fails. Laxdal’s conceit is that current methods of assisted reproduction foreshadow a government-directed reproductive-technology establishment in which pregnant women will need to secure “livability licences” for their fetuses and in which imperfect infants will be sterilized. Laxdal’s critique of government intervention in private decision making is coupled with the view that Oneida must be held accountable for her choice to have an abortion as a teenager, resulting in the ovarian scarring that now prevents her getting pregnant. So apparently avoiding teenage motherhood is a private decision justly punished by sterility and social ostracism. And apparently it’s not governmental oversight but modern choices in general–and female procreative autonomy in particular–that offends Laxdal’s sense of the right and proper.

The “cyber:womb” of the title is a “virtual pregnancy monitor” that Oneida constructs out of parts from her husband’s computer and wears like a Snugli baby carrier, poking wires into herself and the mechanism so she can talk to the twins she’s conceived of but not conceived. This hysterical pregnancy doesn’t keep her husband (David Beninati) from leaving her for his genuinely pregnant mistress (Rachel Tomlinson), and somehow Laxdal manages to suggest that Oneida drove him away, not by losing her mind but by losing the implanted embryos. Anyone who suggests that Oneida really needn’t destroy her entire life in the quest to have a baby is made to sound shallow and trivial. Her mother (Arlene Cooney)–who didn’t enjoy motherhood and aborted Oneida’s sister, who becomes a character in the story–is portrayed as a selfish bitch whose suggestion that a career, creative endeavors, “even volunteer work” can make for a meaningful life without children is presented as obviously false. Not only must one have a baby in this play, one must have babies: like Oneida after her, the mother loses her husband, in her case for having failed to produce more than one child. And the aborted sister (Tomlinson) is the most sympathetic character onstage. (Talk about the Phantom Menace!)

Despite the unreality of the situation, the characters come across as real and psychologically nuanced. Even if your politics are quite different, it’s impossible to dismiss the work out of hand. What does make it easy to dismiss, apparently, is the oddity of such buzzwords as “virtual pregnancy” and “cyber:womb”: there were only two people in the audience on a Saturday night. It’s a shame that the superiority of this thoughtful, imaginative, poetic show is obscured by easy assumptions about “science fiction.”

It may be troubling to see enormous talent put in the service of retrograde politics promoting rugged individualism and claiming that government is the problem–just perform your inherent female function and you’ll be fulfilled. But it’s more troubling still to see feminism presented as awkward agitprop. Oddly, Don’t Promise (subtitled “A Story of Women, Marriage and Mormonism”) is more like science fiction than the punky-sounding Cyber:womb: most science fiction is essentially costumed social commentary, while Don’t Promise is social commentary in historical rather than futuristic dress. But pieces set in a specific past time and place have to work much harder to examine contemporary issues, first incorporating what we know and what we believe we know about the period. Silvia Gonzalez S.’s Don’t Promise fails to establish its period at all.

The story is simple: a young couple (Jill Marie Soltysiak and David Lawrence) settles in Mormon Utah in the 1860s out of economic necessity. The wife rejects their Mormon neighbors and instead befriends the local prostitute (Mary Deveny), while the husband accepts the Mormons and–surprise!–eventually takes a second wife, hoping for the children his first wife has failed to provide. This would be a good back story for an interesting play that would begin where the current one ends, exploring how and why the “sister-wives” come to terms with each other. Instead this predictable piece is filled with stereotypes, from the hooker with a heart of gold to the ignorant Mormon farmers, mysteriously given names like Jim-Bob and played as if they were the Beverly Hillbillies. The playwright gives each character implausible lines intended to advance right thinking, such as “We need each other to survive as sisters.” And the polarity of prostitution (one woman/many men) and polygyny (one man/many women) is formulaic and overdetermined.

Like Laxdal a respected playwright, Gonzalez S. has done nothing to make 19th-century Mormon culture a convincing palimpsest for her views on women’s rights, settling instead for simple anachronism; even the characters’ names smack of the wrong century–the hapless husband is Lance. And verisimilitude requires more than asserting “Here it is 1867!” In fact, in 1867 the women’s-rights movement, which had grown up alongside the abolitionist movement, was making a major push for women’s suffrage. But Gonzalez S. doesn’t make it clear that the rise of Mormonism might have been reactionary–despite her view that Mormon plural marriage was a mere trick by which men dominated women. Instead she puts a bunch of contemporary people in long dresses or suspenders and has them say “yonder” and expects the audience to buy the piece as history.

Stockyards Theatre Project’s production, directed by Jill Elaine Hughes, makes the worst of a bad business: it’s ill clothed, ill housed, and ill performed. The long dresses don’t even fit, and Lance–resplendent in visored cap and collarless shirt–resembles a refugee from Chekhov more than from financial reverses in the antebellum east. The Breadline Theatre space is unfortunately wide and shallow, but there should have been a way to stage the piece without arranging the actors as if they were in a police lineup and moving them back and forth by having them mime knocking on and opening an imaginary door on whose location they have not agreed. The stilted dialogue, intended to convey antiquity, makes decent performances nearly impossible, though Deveny’s lively rendition of the prostitute provides some much-needed energy to an otherwise lifeless evening.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jennifer Girard.