A pair of decidedly non-commercial plays are currently running on Seattle stages: David E. Freeman’s Creeps at Seattle Subversive Theatre and Jane Martin’s Keely and Du at SecondStory Repertory. You’d perhaps expect something less than commercial from Seattle Subversive, but Keely and Du is an especially unconventional choice for SecondStory, whose current season is one of its most ambitious to date.
Jane Martin (a pen name, thought to be that of Jon Jory) wrote the Pulitzer finalist Keely and Du in 1994, and in the ensuing two decades, the abortion debate has only become more divisive. Martin’s issue-oriented play is a blunt, didactic instrument that’s as harrowing as it is clunky in its story of an Operation Rescue-style pro-life group that kidnaps a pregnant young rape victim in order to force her to give birth.
Rick Wright mentions in his director’s note that he wanted to present the story without villains, and Martin surely tried to present an evenhanded view by developing a relationship between the terrified Keely (Alicia Mendez) and her kindly captor Du (Ruth McRee), a woman doing what she believes is right, but who clearly has a troubled past.
Plays with a lot of gray area are obviously more interesting than strict black-and-white, good-and-evil narratives, but the “no villains” pledge doesn’t really wash in a play where everyone is a stock type and one side’s actions are unequivocally indefensible. Mendez is credibly anxiety-ridden, and her performance really kicks into gear when the character is granted a little agency, while McRee is benignly likable in her almost absentminded turn. But the play itself is rarely effective at convincing us these two women have formed anything resembling an unlikely bond.
Though there’s a lot less nuance to the characterization and dialogue of Walter (John Clark), a pastor who helped head up the kidnapping mission and who berates Keely with diatribes on the sanctity of life without a shred of self-awareness; these moments bring the play into sharper focus. Clark is quite good at escalating from thinly veiled contempt to full-blown rage in a matter of seconds.
The show’s fourth character, whose presence constitutes something of a spoiler, is played by Christopher C. Cariker in a truly impressive balancing act that makes him feel like the show’s most rounded human, despite his considerably smaller stage time.
Though it’s ultimately a tract, Keely and Du gets by on the sheer power of its convictions and an unflinching climax. It’s most telling moment though might be a small one near its beginning when Keely is brought forcibly into a basement by two men who make sure to turn around while she’s being undressed and put in a hospital gown. You’ve got to protect her privacy, right?
Over at a small 20-seat black box space in the Ballard Underground, Seattle Subversive is staging Creeps, a one-act set in a bathroom inside a sheltered workshop, a center for people with disabilities where they’re given an insultingly low amounts of money to perform menial tasks. Five men with various degrees of cerebral palsy are holed up in the bathroom, avoiding their pointless jobs and pitiless supervisors, while bullshitting about their futures, sex, and the multitude of people in their lives who treat them like less than human.
Freeman’s play is a compassionate work that affirms the essential humanity of people with disabilities and gives a voice to a type of character rarely portrayed in mainstream art without some kind of savior figure around to guide them through the hardships of life. At under an hour, Creeps is more of a sketch than a full-fledged play, so again, we have characters that are more types than actual people — Tom (Paul Ciasullo), the aspiring artist; Pete (Matt Gaffney), the guy who didn’t live up to his potential; Sam (Spencer Graham), the foul-mouthed jokester; Jim (Chad Jones), the people-pleaser afraid to make a mistake — but Freeman sketches convincingly.
The potential pitfall in Seattle Subversive’s staging is the issue of representation — non-disabled actors are playing characters who are disabled, which requires a remarkably tricky balancing act between realism and sensitivity. Honestly, I’m not sure it’s possible to find a perfect balance, and I certainly don’t feel qualified to make a judgment call here one way or the other. I do think it’s clear that this production, directed by Gregg Gilmore, has been mounted with tremendous respect for its characters and its subject matter, which goes a long way.
Keely and Du runs through May 25 at SecondStory Repertory. Tickets are available for purchase here.
Creeps runs through May 31 at the Ballard Underground. Tickets are available for purchase here.
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