Abortion, as we knew long before the current, contentious presidential election, is a subject with virtually no middle ground. Both sides are well-defined, hardened and resistant to suasion. Should a listener from Side A hear a narrative that might lead to a case for Side B, the narrative is immediately circumscribed and shut off.
Given such an unpromising beginning, Claire Luckham’s The Choice, which premiered in Britain about 20 years ago and is now presented by Appleseed Productions, succeeds in just getting to the floorboards at all and then getting people to listen. Although Appleseed is housed in the basement of Atonement Lutheran Church, 116 W. Glen Ave., only secular evidence is considered in making the important choice. What playwright Luckham wants you to do is to stare straight into an agonizing choice and agony itself.
The couple at the center of the action are educated, middle-class, 30-ish, arts-oriented and unmarried. Sal (Ana Pato Morley) is a go-go journalist, always on the run and facing deadlines, with aspirations someday to write something bigger and more lasting. Ray (Stephfond Brunson), on the other hand, stays in their shared apartment most of the time. A children’s book illustrator, he faces his deadlines without traveling and is used to looking at the world through the eyes of a child. They both welcome the news of Sal’s pregnancy because they had resolved to marry as soon as they had offspring.
Two forces intrude on Sal and Ray’s life, one directly and the other indirectly. At stage right sits a character called the Writer (Anne Fitzgerald), who represents playwright Luckham herself. George Bernard Shaw, among others, liked to insert a character who speaks for him, but the Writer’s voice is autobiographical, even though she does not know Sal and Ray. At stage left is the medical establishment in the persons of the Consultant (Navroz Dabu) and the Midwife, named Sheila (Theresa Constantine).
Because The Choice was written for British performance, there is no rightist attempt to demonize public or “socialized” medicine, but the Consultant suffers from a series of human failings that have nothing to do with politics. He has a picture of his wife on his office bookcase, but the one for his dog is notably bigger.
It is the Consultant, with his complete absence of bedside manner, who informs Sal that the unborn child suffers an extra chromosome on pair 21 in its genetic makeup, meaning it is sure to be born with Down syndrome. This is exactly the news expectant couples dread, and the reactions of Sal and Ray can be expected.
Ray remembers the hateful street term “mong,” apparently from Mongoloid, for Down syndrome children, but gradually he swings more toward seeing the pregnancy through to delivery. Sal, meanwhile, because abortion is legal, and there are no pro-life groups to speak to her, wrestles with the decision over how to deal with her body largely on her own. She contemplates a child forever dependent, suffering the cruelties of other children.
In the first act we are not sure why the Writer is there, as so little of what she says seems to pertain to the dramatic dialogue. Claire Luckham, born in Kenya in 1944, is a modestly famous playwright, always assertively known for dealing with women’s issues, but not classified as a feminist politically. After Sal makes her choice in the second act, the Writer reveals a family relationship that has influenced her view in writing the play.
First-time director Pat Marzola yields many benefits by focusing on the two leads, both of whom represent departures in casting. Ana Pato Morley from New York City makes an area debut as Sal, but brings a string of credits, including Dulcinea in Man of La Mancha. As the choice-maker of the title, Morley’s Sal carries the heaviest emotional burdens, and must deliver every possible tone and color, include tears that well up on cue. Other companies will be seeking her out.
Stephfond Brunson has one of the best-known faces in town, but he’s usually a comic player or a dancer-choreographer. Used to seeing things though children’s eyes, his Ray makes a compelling case against ending the pregnancy. We care what he feels, too. The role of Ray was probably not written for a black man, but under Marcia Mele’s dialect coaching, Ray speaks with the same class and regional British accent as everyone else. Additionally, recent news reports tell us that interracial births are more common in the United Kingdom than in any other industrial nation. We believe the casting from scene one.
There’s much pain in Claire Luckham’s The Choice, but no preaching and no politics.
This production runs through Nov. 10. See Times Table for information.