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All Things Entertaining and Cultural

Midwives — George Street Playhouse; The Vertical Hour — Lantern Theater

 

MIDWIVES — George Street Playhouse at the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center, 11 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, 732-246-7717, www.georgestreetplayhouse.org, through February 16 — Working from the theory that stories find their best form, and that novelists are too married to narrative to be spare and dramatic, there’s risk in a writer of best-sellers turning to the theater and plays. Chris Bohjalian accepted and meets that risk in his play, “Midwives,” an adaptation of his 1998 novel about a ‘baby catcher’ who, because of weather conditions, is forced to perform an emergency Cesarean section delivery which she is neither licensed nor qualified to do. Bohjalian takes to his new genre as if he was born to be a playwright. The first act of “Midwives,” a world premiere at New Brunswick’s George Street Playhouse, is taut, tension-filled, and loaded with edge-of-your-seat anxiety about the situation at hand, a routine birth that turns difficult and an icy night that even a lifelong Vermonter, used to negotiating slippery roads, cannot navigate. A life, or lives, are in the balance. Time becomes scant, and critical decisions have to made without much room for uncertainty or deep deliberation. Director David Saint and his extraordinary cast make you respond to every minute, whether the expectant mother is pushing with all her strength to bring her son into the world; the midwife, exteriorly calm, inside worried and tortured by the decision that awaits her, is taking pulses and checking vital signs of both mother and child; the expectant father is agonizing over his wife’s condition while comforting her, cheering her on, and assisting the midwife, and an intern is trusting her mentor but skeptical about the course she is likely to take and fearful she is rushing to judgment while alternative options exist. One can’t help getting engrossed and involved. So much is at stake, the characters have become so loveable, the value of the child is increased because of talk of previous miscarriages, and passion and coolness must so intermingle, the audience feels as invested in the outcome as the people on stage. Bohjalian’s script leaves the birth site, a bedroom in a remote Vermont town, with neighbors and hospitals tens of miles off, to show us the expecting couple before they moved to Vermont from Alabama and give us a sense of the midwife’s background and homelife, but he and Saint have the theatrical instinct use those sidebar scenes to give the audience and actors a needed break from that natal bedchamber. Like the couple that hired her and insisted, contrary to her suggestion, on having their baby at home in spite of the crippling weather, we have faith in the midwife and her good sense. Ellen McLaughlin engenders such confidence as she takes command, keeps everyone as steady as she can, and proceeds with what she sees as her duty with the best intentions and most professional acumen. The Arthur Laurents Theatre, where “Midwives” unfolds, is a tinderbox of expectation and emotion. Certain the mother has succumbed to a stroke, McLaughlin’s midwife calls for the sharpest knife in the house. She saves the baby, but the mother is sacrificed in the process. A panoply of feelings, some contradicting others, cascade in “Midwives’s” Act One. Letdown and relief come at once as a harrowing night has some conclusion, one that seems the best to be asked for under the circumstances. Medical examiners do not agree with the midwife’s assessment that the mother had died before the Cesarean began. They are reinforced in their opinion by the intern who urged caution and saw signs of life prior to surgery. Act Two deals with legality. It is basically a courtroom scene, a basic staple of the theater. As tight and as feverish as Bohjalian keeps his first act is how loose and novel-like he constructs the second. Interest remains. So do positive feelings for the midwife. Suddenly, though, Bohjalian doesn’t trust the tenets of the stage. Instead of opting for a trial scene in which the testimony and cross examination provide the apprehension about drama, Bohjalian has his characters talking about the case. Yes, the play calls for a discussion about midwifery, its place in obstetrics, and when it needs to be abandoned for more standard medical treatment. Yes, we have to see once more how much the expecting couple wanted their child born under their roof, in the bed in which he was conceived. These matters need coverage outside the courtroom. Other matters do not. Bohjalian spends too time having each side consult with lawyers and discussing strategy better revealed in the action and dialogue in the courtroom. He resorts to more direct storytelling, particularly in the person of the midwife’s daughter, who tells the story in the novel and has a critical role in it, but loses the theatrical nature of his piece in the bargain. Showing and not telling is key to theater, but there is one incident, a telephone call from the intern, we’ve heard about and understand so well, we don’t have to see it. The second act far from sabotages “Midwives.” Even people who know the novel can enjoy the trial sequences and bite their nails as they’re acted out, but intensity and dramatic muscle is missing. Bohjalian’s play seems somehow diluted. The novel has taken over after the playwright was doing so exceedingly well. While Bohjalian’s second act doesn’t live up to the tension or promise of the first, it continues to keep you involved in ‘Midwives.” Bohjalian may have slipped back to a novelist’s toolbox, but Saint is theater through-and-through, and he keeps his show from flagging too far from a pitch that engages and retains interest. No attention could be lost while Ellen McLaughlin is on stage. From her deep, arresting voice to her complexly nuanced portrayal of the midwife, McLaughlin impresses and fascinates. In the labor scenes, she is the experienced veteran in charge. Her eyes betray some concern, but mostly she’s there to rouse everyone to high, confident spirits and to guide a new life into worldly existence. McLaughlin shows many sides of her character, Sibyl. We not only see her as medical leader but as a wife, mother, and woman who has to defend herself against criminal charges that belie her commitment and need to act with dispatch. McLaughlin makes you admire Sibyl and the choices she’s made in life and in the Vermont bedroom on the night when birth and death co-mingled. Joining McLaughlin is keeping the birthing scenes so compelling are Monique Robinson as the mother who captures your empathy and your heart as she valiantly goes through one more session in an effort to deliver a child who seems to stubbornly relish the womb, and Ryan George as the conflicted but helpful husband who exudes love and purity as he comprehends and does his duty whatever that duty might be. Grace Experience, Molly Carden, John Bolger, Michael Cullen, Armand Schultz, and Lee Sellars complete the cast. Shoko Cambara’s set design adds to the power of the first act. Lisa Zinni’s costumes help define the character they clothe.

 

THE VERTICAL HOUR — Lantern Theater, in St. Stephen’s Church, 10th and Ludlow Streets, Philadelphia, 215-829-0395, www.lanterntheater.org, through February 16 — David Hare always provides a lot for theatergoers to consider. In “The Vertical Hour,” he delves into war, its coverage, option for a life different from one of action, and, of course, relationships. Being British, Hare approached his subject on a mature level and writes discussions that imbue his characters with intelligence, insight, and high sensibility. “The Vertical Hour,” a time when one must coolly confront a situation and stand to face it rather than regard it emotionally or avoid conflict by becoming romantic or sentimental, takes war, compatibility, and the talent for tolerance and forgiveness as his topics. Hare’s text gives one lots to consider as witty, informed, and articulate characters review their subjects, point and counterpoint, until all aspects are inspected and dissected. It’s fun to hear the glistening dialogue. Hare can be talky, but the talk is of a high order, so interest remains high. In the Lantern production, directed by Kathryn MacMillan, talk has to entertain because the characters seem to have no flesh on their bones or energy to move them. Hare’s sharp, engaging dialogue is there, but it’s delivered blandly as if having something interesting to say is enough, and nothing has to be established to animate or highlight Hare’s words. MacMillan and Lantern made the same error a few years back with Michael Frayn’s “Copenhagen.” Hearing about the female lead’s experiences in Iraq, where she corresponded about the war, the capture of Saddam Hussein, the retaliatory insurgence of forces favoring terrorists, and how it led to her having an unpopularly positive opinion of the need for some battle, should be reward enough. But Geneviève Perrier, an actress who has mustered great intensity, seems to breeze through her lines, reciting them without conviction and barely establishing a character that could attract a father, a son, and others she speak about while relating her experience. There’s no context in Perrier’s readings. “The Vertical Hour,” tough because it is so talky and calls for little movement or action, suffers for this. It doesn’t get a full hearing because two of its characters don’t seem to care if you listen. Joe Guzmàn creates an air of leisurely charm, but he doesn’t infuse his part of the dialogue, a bit more cynical, a lot more stoic, with any oomph either. MacMillan’s production falls flat and seems bland instead of bursting with intellectual fodder than should make you want to meet and have your own dinner with the speakers sowing it. It wastes any effervescence Hare provides. It allows the audience to tune out at time because the subject and not the presentation of the speeches take precedence. Marc LeVasseur, as a son reluctantly bringing his fiancée at her insistence to his urbane father’s quaint Shropshire country home, offers more spirit. He doesn’t have as much of pith to say, but LeVasseur’s character speaks for the simple and everyday, solid principles and habits that last. The only person he cannot be rational about, or around, is his father. Naturally, Hare creates triangular conflicts that come to head when he reveals how possessively the characters adhere to their ideas and practical execution of them. A full-blooded production of “The Vertical Hour,” with characters that exuded dimension and seemed drawn from life would be welcome. MacMillan’s uninspired staging lets Hare’s thoughts, arguments, and attitudes to be heard, but as they might be in a lecture and not as in a play. Ned Pryce and Sydney Banks do well as the correspondent’s students, Pryce having the most lively byplay with Perrier. One star of this Lantern production is set designer Meghan Jones who creates a delightful garden patio for the father’s villa. Shannon Zura helps by dousing the patio in gorgeous morning sunlight after she has bathed it in enticing, provocative moonlight.

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