A Captive Audience

At first glance the premise of Jane Martin's bizarre 1993 play Keely and Du seems to be the product of a hot-wired, somewhat paranoid imagination: A group of extremists abducts a young woman from an abortion clinic, spirits her away to an underground cell, and keeps her there against her will until she's far enough along in her pregnancy to give birth. Considering the tactics of anti-abortion activists during the last ten years, however, the playwright did not have to make that much of a leap from actual events in order to hatch her story line. The parallels between dramatic fiction and real life -- from the harassment of women entering abortion clinics to the murder of doctors and clinic workers -- make this challenging work all the more alarming.

Barry Steinman directs an assured although sometimes plodding production of the harrowing Keely and Du at New Theatre in Coral Gables. Waking up from a drug-induced sleep, a woman finds herself handcuffed to a bedpost. Talk about a waking nightmare. Three months pregnant after being raped by her ex-husband, Keely goes to a legal clinic to have an abortion, but members of a right-wing group called Operation Retrieval have other ideas for her. Operation Retrieval's game plan for saving the unborn baby includes caring for mother Keely until she's seven months pregnant, then "allowing" her to return home to deliver a baby they assume she will, by then, care about and want. As the smarmy pastor who engineered the kidnapping tells Keely with a paternalistic smile: "I've limited your options and taken away your will." But the group has underestimated its prey: Terrified, furious, yet determined, the prisoner waits for months for the chance to make her move. When she gets it, she doesn't hesitate to take outrageous measures to ensure her freedom.

No matter how dramatic or tragic such material may be in our personal experiences or on the evening news, when turned into an issue-oriented play the highly charged subject of abortion can swiftly grow tedious. Mercifully, Martin refrains from inflicting an op-ed page rant on the audience. Instead she offers us two believable central characters: Keely (Amy Kozleuchar) and Du (Rosina de Luca), an older woman in whose full-time care Keely has been placed by Operation Retrieval. The understanding that develops between captive and captor lies at the heart of the work. How the women come to value one another and attempt to take care of one another gives the play its complexity and humanity. Relying on characterization rather than polemic, Martin pierces the heart of the abortion debate, revealing it to be about sexual politics and the right to personal privacy and choice; at the same time, she points out that the debate should not be about whether life begins at conception, or whether a fetus has legal rights.

Widely rumored to have been written by a man under a female pseudonym, Martin's plays have premiered in a steady march at the Actors' Theatre in Louisville since the early Eighties; her (or his) work never shies away from fractious subject matter, characters who live on the fringe, or fresh methods of presenting points of view. In 1982's one-act comedy Coup, for example, an Alabama town gets up in arms when a black dentist wins the role of Rhett Butler in the annual presentation of Gone with the Wind. Cementville (1991) depicts a woolly band of professional women wrestlers, while 1990's Vital Signs takes on the war between the sexes through more than 30 two-minute monologues performed by two men and six women. Although just as contentious, absurd, and extreme as Martin's previous work, Keely and Du departs from the others because it is not meant to be a comedy. And yet some of its elements are innately funny. A pity then that director Steinman fails to exploit them.

Much-needed doses of levity might have lightened this self-consciously serious production, directed as a patience-trying hour-and-45-minute one act. (Indeed, Martin conceived of the play as a one act in eighteen scenes, although she gives directors the option of presenting it in two acts by noting where to end act one in the original script.) Presumably, both Martin and Steinman favor a long single act in order to drive home the experience of being imprisoned. But as Operation Retrieval's pastor Walter (Roger Martin) might say, Lord have mercy. In this case, life imitated art a bit too exactly; as the evening wore on and I increasingly felt as though I was being held captive, my attention strayed from the action on-stage.

In other ways, however, Steinman's methodical pacing and seriousness of purpose hit pay dirt, and a number of memorable scenes informed by powerful acting consistently drew me back into the story. In particular, Kozleuchar and de Luca share a wonderful scene in which Du smuggles beer into the prison cell on Keely's birthday. As Walter, Roger Martin presents eerily convincing arguments against abortion to the enraged Keely. And in a short but significant episode, Todd Behrend delivers a frighteningly gripping performance as Cole, Keely's purportedly reformed ex-husband. Additionally, Michael Thomas Essad's makeshift fallout shelter set and Steve Shapiro's sound design, complete with the intermittent noise of dripping water, convey a sense of powerlessness and claustrophobia central to the play's themes.

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