Melissa’s Choice, An American Dilemma, currently at The Lion Theatre until May 22, is a play about one woman’s dilemma in choosing among a number of options when she finds out that she is pregnant. The play reveals her emotional angst and, with an interesting arc of development as other characters become involved, brings her along the journey to where she finally is able to make a decision. After the performance I attended, there was a talkback with the playwright, Steven Somkin, the director, Mel Cobb, and the acting ensemble, Jessica DiGiovanni (Melissa), Ari Butler (Tad), Kim Sykes (Melba), Stephen Bradbury (Clyde the cowboy), Jed Orlemann (Duffle), and Gilbert L. Bailey II (Billy, Melba’s son).
How did the play evolve?
Playwright Steven Somkin: I had been working on this play for a number of years. A couple of years ago I brought it to “Plays in Progress,” PIP, which is a playwrights’ workshop that meets up in Hudson, New York every month. And I worked on it scene by scene. At one point Mel Cobb the director came and said, “Is it ready? And I said, “Yeah, it’s finished.” And he said, “I’d like to see it and play the cowboy if you have a ‘friends and family’ meeting.” So I said, you’re a director and artistic director and a writer, song and dance man and general all-purpose theater guy. Would you direct it? And he said, “Yes.” So we had a friends and family meeting. This was more than a year and a half ago. This is our director, Mel Cobb, another Mel. [Mel Cobb joins the cast on stage]
Cobb: Yeah, I have been trying to get Steven to change the name to Mel’s Choice [audience laughs]
Somkin: And we did another reading at New Dramatists a year ago in April. Mel and I talked and we said, “OK. This is ready for production.” And so last September we started looking for theaters. And there were not many theaters that would allow us to do what we wanted to do. Kim Sykes [the actress who plays Melba] is also a member of that writer’s group and she’s a writer as well as being an actor. She played Jessica in the readings that we had. Last September we started looking for venues and we found The Lion. And the first time it was available it was this May. So it all came together. That’s the genesis of this play.
What was the original idea for the play? Was it a character?
Somkin: I’m not exactly sure. These things often come from different places. I knew that I wanted to write about something environmental that had to do with population explosion and the pressure that that is putting on the environment. I had a number of women I did know, who had gone through this sort of thing, so I had the dialogue from those relationships.
Most important, I worked in an adolescent clinic. A lot of these girls would come in, 15 years old, 16 years old and they were pregnant and they didn’t know what to do. There was a lot of confusion. My whole thrust was, you really have to have an abortion now because you’re going to ruin your life. You’re not going to have an education, your kid will be disadvantaged. But I couldn’t say that because that wouldn’t be fair to my role as a caregiver. So I had to bite my tongue.
So when the character Melba is biting her tongue, she holds back what she believes in order to let Melissa say what she thinks. [Jed Orlemann joins the cast onstage] And for the character of Duffle, I don’t know where he came from. [audience laughs] So I think that’s part of the answer, but I really can’t answer beyond that.
When did you decide to use some of the thought scenes – I guess you would say they were fantasy scenes – to flash what was going on in her head?
Somkin: I’m not sure, but that was always around from the very beginning. In fact the writing challenge I had was to get the fantasies integral to the naturalistic story. And that Mel and Kim worked on for well over a year. That was the biggest challenge of the play and it was always a challenge in the readings we had and a challenge for Mel in how to present this with sound, light and acting and the stylistic changes.
As an audience member, those scenes kind of caught me off guard. They happened very quickly, ended and we were back in the scene.
Somkin: Yeah well, That’s by design.
With the character of Melissa, you put all the pressure on her decision. And I wasn’t quite sure about the end.
Well, what is right is that she has that choice. Different women in the same position might make a different choice than she does.
I got it like it is open-ended. Her closing phrase is, “I hope that one day we may have a family.” So what does that mean? That she is now doing it on her own and that he will join her, or that she is going through with the abortion? What was her choice? Or did I miss something?
Cobb: We don’t see her decision. We see her choice.
Right, so she doesn’t make a decision, yet?
Somkin: Yes, she does. And the way I like to present it is that there is one man that could be her partner who wants her to have a baby and the other man wants her to have an abortion. And she chooses the one who wants her to have an abortion. But it’s her choice.
So she will have an abortion?
Ari Butler: It’s good you stayed for the talkback. (audience laughs)
Naomi Somkin (Steven’s wife): In previous talkback discussions there has been a difference in the audience’s reactions and what they felt had been her decision. Could I ask for a show of hands how many people thought she had the abortion? And how many people thought she would have the baby? And how many people thought she went with Ari? Duffle?
Somkin: But the important thing is the journey and the choice has to be free. And the tagline of the play is “An American Dilemma” and the reason that I chose those words is that in many countries abortion is either legal or illegal. In this country it is legal but there is tremendous opposition to it. So in a way this is an American dilemma because we are not comfortable with either abortion or insisting that every pregnancy be carried to term.
I am from Germany. So in Europe it is a different approach.
Yes in Europe it’s different. The conflict is never that intense. I have to say I love the way that Jessica DiGiovanni is bringing that confusion to her character. Every night [audience applause], every performance is slightly different but it’s just so clear to me how she frames that character.
Question for Jessica: How do you frame the character Melissa? How do you find a different take each night so it doesn’t become redundant for you?
DiGiovanni: I learned the role backwards and forwards so that it’s second nature to me. And then I feel I am so blessed to have amazing and wonderful scene partners on stage. We completely trust one another 100%. [audience applauds] We are playing up there. And every night, there is something new and different. And that’s why I do this profession. It keeps things exciting and lively. So I guess hard work with the back story and then trusting the cast and then it just kind of happens which is a beautiful thing. Then you just kind of breathe life into it every night and it ebbs and flows in different ways.
Jed Orlemann: It helps that Ari drops lines every night [everyone laughs]
Ari Butler: Not to brag, but I think I said a higher percentage of my lines tonight. [everyone laughs]
Cobb: That’s why they’re called the “players.”
DiGiovanni and various cast members: It keeps things exciting.
Somkin: I’ve worked often with very fine actors. This is the first time that I’ve worked with a whole cast of this caliber. So even if they drop a line or two, they recover. It’s lovely to watch.
I have a question for Melba.
Kim Sykes: Kim, Melba, it’s all the same.
How do you get into character?
Sykes: For me it’s not about Melba being black, which of course she is. She’s African American and she is who she is. To get into character…I think of Melba as being an ex-military lady. And to me that just feeds it, the idea of the military. And I have lots of military in my family, so when I think of those people, I think of people who don’t put up with anything. They’re always doing their job and they’re always on the money. You know they don’t play games [audience laughs]. So before I go onstage I think it’s about just get out there and do what you have to do. And I just go.
And you know, I didn’t really find her until a couple of days beforehand. I was struggling and asking, “Who the hell is she?” I was avoiding the military thing. At first, in the early days I thought about it. Then I thought no, that’s not it. And I was getting kind of crazy thinking, “Well, who is she?” And then it clicked. I thought of somebody I knew and I realized, “That’s who she is,” and I was able to relax. Yeah, she’s a military lady first and foremost so that’s what I work from.
How did you work on the casting process to come up with this ensemble?
Somkin: We had a casting director. And the casting director presented us with a number of choices. The watchword is you don’t cast a role, you cast a play. So everybody was chosen all together as a group.
Cobb: I think that’s a fairly good answer to the question. Practically speaking, we went to this particular casting agent who’s a very fine one in New York. And we saw about 100 people, at least. As it always is, it’s a gut feeling, it’s an impression. Certainly, one can see the technical facility of the individual actors involved here in New York. The actors are a particularly high quality that we start with.
Then we check for the overused word, the chemistry between actors. There were about, in the last session, the last hour we did this for three days, there were about 50 photographs of actors on the floor. We just kept walking around and between the photos, remembering our reactions to what they had shown us and literally things just started to gel by taking time over the process and not making snap decisions. Then we just decided and put these six people together.
Orlemann: And we were chosen when the first three choices said “No.” [audience laughs]
Cobb: Just to dispel his dark humor, that did not happen. We had our first choices and we kept our fingers crossed and we had about a 36-hour period when Steven and I were keeping our fingers crossed…
Somkin: I just want to say that Mel had fallen in love with the character of Clyde (cowboy). He said I’m going to do this role unless we find somebody better. And Stephen Bradbury walked on to the casting floor. And Mel said, “This guy’s better.” [audience laughs] Which is not easy to do.
Stephen Bradbury: Then Mel must have been terrible. [audience laughs]
The scene under the tree by the river, stage right between Jessica and the cowboy, was an amazing scene. I’m curious. Was that set in your mind or was that improvised?
Somkin: No, that kind of grew organically. I had the notion that they would be together but as soon as you put lights on that, magic happens. And I don’t know how that happens. I was partly responsible for that.
Thank you all for coming and the cast and Mel and special thanks to Naomi who has been through this. It can’t be too easy to be a playwright’s wife and somehow she manages and has been doing it for a couple of decades. I want to thank you again and say good night to you all. [audience applauds] [amazon template=iframe image&asin=0312620543][amazon template=iframe image&asin=1567692095]