JANE: ABORTION AND THE UNDERGROUND
Imagine Theatre Company
at the Theatre Building
A WOMAN NAMED MARY
In 1969 an underground abortion network, known unofficially as “Jane,” was established in Hyde Park by University of Chicago student Heather Booth. Run almost entirely by female volunteers, who labored under constant threat of discovery and criminal charges, it helped 11,000 women obtain safe, low-cost abortions. In 1973 Roe v. Wade put abortion back in the hands of the more antiseptic but not nearly as sympathetic male-dominated medical community.
Jane: Abortion and the Underground, produced by the Imagine Theatre Company, strives to convey the spirit of that time, of “women helping other women to live and die.” Journalist Paula Kamen and Imagine artistic director Karen Gorrin, who joined forces to develop this production, arrived at a format combining monologues and short, dramatic scenes based on interviews with former Jane volunteers and women who used Jane. Gorrin and Kamen have since become involved in a bitter dispute over whether both of them deserve credit for the script, or only Kamen. Sadly, this controversy has been more dramatic than the show turns out to be. The disputed script, which tells the story of Jane’s gradual emergence, gets so bogged down in feminist rhetoric and earnest harangue that it plays less like an “oral herstory” (as the play’s dramaturge calls it) than like a long Women’s Studies lecture.
Jane begins in and around the University of Chicago campus in the mid-60s, where activist Booth and other women are getting fed up with taking a backseat to male campus activists (all played as officious pricks). “Don’t you realize what a resource we are?” one woman rebukes the men. “I can understand why blacks want to fight their own battles, rather than be ordered around by you dominating white male liberals.”
This stiff, pedantic dialogue, which persists through much of the show, is wearing on both the audience and the ensemble, who tend to stumble over it when it’s flying fast and thick. Booth is treated with obvious respect but is never anything more than a figurehead–an activist, not a fully realized woman. The monologues–dealing with unhappy marriages, unhappy pregnancies, discrimination, and harassment–ring true but have very little dramatic value. After a while they all start to run together.
In the second act Jane has emerged as a natural extension of the Women’s Liberation Union. The practical concerns of running such an organization are intriguing, but Gorrin has a difficult time turning the stilted, careful interviews on which the play is based into actual drama. The women manage to collect specula, dilators, and antibiotics. They learn to perform abortions themselves. The Chicago Police grudgingly look the other way–some even make use of Jane. These are details treated just as details, delivered by rote through monologues and sketches in which the people remain anonymous–tools used to get the facts across. There’s no question that the facts behind Jane are fascinating and important; there just doesn’t seem to be much of a play going on. The exception is one emotionally charged monologue by a Jane client, who speaks of a painful 45-minute abortion after which she went into the bathroom and threw up next to a garbage can full of fetal waste. “I’d do it again,” she announces at the end with bleak defiance.
The competent ensemble of 13 do the best they can with what they’ve been given, shuttling between anger and sincerity. Set designer Bruce Starr’s tattered burlap drapery, extending from a twisted pillar upstage, is suitably tortured and unsettling; but the naturally volatile nature of the abortion issue is conspicuously absent.
Mary Fields, the first black stagecoach driver for the U.S. mail and the second woman ever to hold that post, is a good example of a fully realized woman. Born into slavery in 1832, Fields went to Montana at the age of 60, where she eventually opened up a saloon and a laundry after driving coach for eight years.
A Woman Named Mary, produced by the Transient Theatre, makes a go of dramatizing her in this one-woman show, written and directed by Pamela Sherrod. Sloppy direction, however, and a rather too introspective performance by Bridget Powell as Mary keep the play from being all that it could.
Sherrod’s script brings the ghostly Fields into a present-day saloon to share her memories with the audience. This she does, in a meandering and often poetic manner, telling of her own saloon–“I sat, just as big and black as I am, on property that belonged to me”–and the way Montana called to her, “courtin’ me like a man with nothing to hide.” She speaks of her fondness for warm homemade whiskey, delivering a baby on her mail run, sitting on top of the stagecoach using bandits for target practice, and her one and only gunfight.
As Mary, Powell has a charming rough-and-tumble manner. Hers is an honest performance marred by a tendency to mutter the lines to herself–it was often difficult to hear her. To make matters worse, she chewed on a small wad that might’ve been meant as tobacco chaw but must have been gum, since she never spit once during the hour-long show. Sherrod allows her to wander around the stage too much and indulge in dangerously long pauses. Moreover, the Velcro fasteners visible on Field’s “turn-of-the-century” dusty coat were a jarring anachronism.
On the plus side, Powell’s eyes gleam with wit and warmth (even when we can’t hear her), and the tale she tells of challenging a white man to a gunfight is not only audible, it’s electrifying.