Odyssey Theatre

at the International Performance Studio

On the front lines of the abortion-rights struggle, the prochoice side finds itself at something of a disadvantage. Faced with protecting what many perceive to be the status quo, supporters of choice are often forced to engage in discussions of constitutionality that cannot hope to compete on television with the gruesome symbols the antiabortion forces have at their disposal. Regrettably, pictures of bloody fetuses play better on the six o’clock news than rational arguments.

At prochoice meetings, you hear people trying to figure out how to beat the prolifers at their game. I heard one woman shout, “Let’s kick some prolife butt!” A few of us toyed with the idea of patenting “Abort Prolifers” bumper stickers. But when you come right down to it, it’s difficult to one-up a crowd of screaming moms, grandpas, men of the cloth, and little kids chaining themselves to the doors of a medical clinic. Chaining oneself to the Constitution doesn’t have quite the same effect.

To the rescue comes Private Passage, by Louise Bylicki and James Serpento, a play that tries appealing to both emotion and reason. And it succeeds.

Private Passage is part straightforward play, part theatrical collage, and part factual discourse. It begins with a short dance piece that melts into a series of dramatizations of situations where abortion is the only alternative (“I got no money,” “I’m 12 years old”). “Something is growing inside them that they do not want,” we’re told.

The play settles on one particular case. Drew is a schoolteacher, 30 years old, the daughter of conservative, middle-class parents. Drew’s pregnant. Drew’s boyfriend Bobby is thrilled by the fruit of his loins growing inside Drew. Drew isn’t so thrilled; she wants an abortion. But it isn’t that easy, because Drew is haunted by memories of her sister Phoebe, who died at 16 while trying to perform an abortion on herself. Plus, Mom’s always been a strident prolifer and she’s been more strident than ever since Phoebe died. And as if that weren’t enough, it seems Mom blames Drew for Phoebe’s death.

The playwrights have tried to keep the play moving by avoiding a linear framework. Scenes are interrupted by flashbacks. Locations change frequently. Absurd musical-comedy sequences are employed to provide social commentary. Actors play multiple roles. Some of this works; some of it doesn’t.

The play’s strongest moments come in the scenes where we see through Drew’s eyes the events that led to Phoebe’s death. Phoebe brings Drew along for moral support as she takes a frightening journey in search of an abortion. We see their fear as Phoebe learns of her pregnancy, share their horror as Phoebe and Drew go to a prolife center that has been fronting as an abortion clinic, and see the despair in Phoebe’s eyes as she is refused permission to have an abortion by a grotesque collection of judges. At the moment when Phoebe takes the abortion into her own hands with a knitting needle, it is impossible not to be horrified.

The play gets bogged down whenever it becomes a little too creative for its own good. A surreal fantasy sequence in which the bureaucrats ruling on abortion matters are portrayed as Groucho, Chico, and Harpo undercuts the tension and drama the play has worked so hard to produce. A recurring moment in which the ghost of Phoebe returns to sing about what she might have become if things had been different gets a trifle mawkish. And snippets of homiletic dialogue (“You must remember where you’ve been to know where you’re going”) seem more appropriate for television than for theater.

What makes Odyssey Theatre’s production of Private Passage compelling viewing is the stellar cast that director Shannon Cochran has assembled. The seven actors work as an incredibly tight-knit ensemble and deliver honest, committed performances. Particularly good is Robin Kersey in the role of Phoebe. Kersey convincingly shows Phoebe’s brash self-confidence give way to desperation. Mark St. Amant is quite genuine as Bobby, a well-meaning guy who just can’t get some things through his head. And Jessica Frankel provides welcome comic relief in a wide variety of roles. On the few occasions when the script cannot deliver the message it wants to convey, the actors are more than able to compensate.

Private Passage struck me as a very appropriate piece to bring to communities around the country. If presented in the proper environments, this production could go a long way toward changing some minds on the reproductive-rights question. It is a powerful piece of political theater.

A note to the management of Facets Multimedia Center: the studio space needs to be better sound-proofed. Some of the dramatic moments of Private Passage were undermined by the loud conversations about Godard in the lobby.