Stage Left Theatre

Sometimes a program tells you more than its producers intend it to. The one for Jeff Mangrum’s Sunken Land describes the play as “a futuristic drama where women & men struggle against a government that has gone out of control.” Not surprisingly, the play isn’t any more subtle than this description. And in a lengthy author’s note Mangrum explains how, though he “cannot presume to understand what a woman feels before, during and after an abortion,” he came to write a play about reproductive rights. Though he strikes a humble pose, a smugness comes through that’s also echoed in the play. As if presenting his qualifications, he describes how he has twice escorted a lover “through lines of fetus-photo wielding hecklers gathered outside clinics like sanctimonious crows.” He explains that he left the Mormon church in part because of its condescending attitude toward women. Yet it seems very condescending to say: “I have a great deal of respect for women, and their wonderful strengths.”

Mangrum’s story–about a couple destroyed by a society where abortion is illegal and rape victims are kidnapped by the government and forced to have the babies of their attackers–reminded me less of visionary works like Huxley’s Brave New World and Orwell’s 1984 than of television movies of the 70s, when supposed conspiracies and futuristic societies were in vogue. Laura is raped in her home by a government agent, taken to a mysterious hospital, and imprisoned there until doctors can determine whether she’s conceived. She becomes the roommate of another rape victim, the bound and gagged Camille, who has been resisting the brainwashing commercials they’re shown, in which bland-voiced women testify that they too were once afraid to have children but have now seen the light. Between the scenes in which Laura and Camille bond (at warp speed) events occur that add up to a story, but lacking full characterizations it’s not worth watching. An amoral nurse and orderly switch Laura’s and Camille’s medical records to make life easier for themselves; a zealous Mormon couple, Alma and Hyrum, plot to murder abortionists; and Laura’s husband, Brad, knocks on bureaucratic doors in search of his missing wife.

Mangrum doesn’t stir much sympathy for the separated couple, in part because he doesn’t give them a scene together but mostly because he hasn’t bothered to establish who they are, individually or as a couple. When Laura calls out for her “husband” and Brad demands to know where his “wife” is, the terms sound generic, empty of meaning to them and us. Alma and Hyrum, with their repressed sexuality, are cliched religious zealots, but at least we know what motivates them. They firmly believe that they’re doing God’s work, and Alma in particular is a plausible character, explaining to Laura, “Tragedy is not in death, but the denial of life.” Though Marc, the government agent/rapist who fairly oozes malice, isn’t meant to be a sympathetic character, he is potentially interesting. He seems to be acting on his own sadistic and greedy behalf as much as for the government; but rather than explore the possible intrigue of a renegade agent, Mangrum uses Marc mostly as a stock bully.

Sunken Land clearly sets the big bad government and organized religion against the individual. What isn’t clear is how much the citizens are aware of their government’s tactics. They know abortion is illegal but don’t seem to know about the government-sanctioned rapes and abductions. Perhaps only the medical community is in on the secret: until they become involved with Laura, the orderly and the nurse seem to take in stride the fact that women are imprisoned and killed daily. Also confusing is how, in a government that seems unified with the church, Alma continues to hold a position of power at the government hospital even after she’s been banned from the church. And does the church know the government is not just “rescuing” unborn babies from rape victims but also providing the rapists?

Director Mike Troccoli’s decision to try to breathe life into this issue-oriented play is admirable if misguided, and his direction is sensible. Neither the victims, Marguerite Hammersley as Laura and Callie Beaulieu as Camille, nor their persecutor, Stephanie Ferrell as Alma, slip into self-righteous tones. Each gives her character an inner strength, Ferrell and Hammersley with soft-spoken assurance, and Beaulieu screaming against the madness of the situation, though she never lapses into hysteria. Michael Cimino is also excellent, making Marc a very good bad guy, the kind I’d like to see in a better play.

Frank Rose’s uncluttered two-level set keeps the action flowing, but it’s Dawn DeWitt’s costume design that gives the play’s fictional era a suggestive look. To underscore Mangrum’s allusions to a changed, hotter atmosphere, the players wear sunglasses indoors and lots of white and linen. DeWitt also uses variations on the past to give Mangrum’s future its own style: Marc’s suit conjures images of riverboat gamblers and southern plantations, and Alma looks almost Victorian in a long, lace-trimmed dress. Stage Left Theatre’s production is made up of many such good parts, but they don’t add up to a very good whole.