The dilemma is always the woman’s when it comes to pregnancy. Some women will go to term and put the child up for adoption. For many in the U.S. an abortion is the only reasonable choice. For others it is a religious decision. For them, as Gladys Aylward said (Ingrid Bergman played the missionary to 1930s China in the film Inn of the Sixth Happiness), taking care of a baby isn’t difficult. In the film, Bergman/Aylward says, “What is there to know? When they’re dirty you wash them, when they’re hungry you feed them.” And she adds something to the effect that when they cry, you pick them up, hold them and love them.
For the heroine, Melissa (a fine, nuanced performance by Jessica DiGiovanni) in Melissa’s Choice by Steven Somkin, currently at The Lion Theatre on Theatre Row, having a baby is not that simple. In fact Melissa is in a quandary and she must face her final decision alone, even though there are others around to give her much-needed advice. Unlike Aylward’s time and place when the world was less complicated and there were fewer choices if a woman became pregnant, Melissa’s Choice takes place in the present and her circumstances are very different.
The play opens as Melissa and Tad (portrayed with subtle complexity by Ari Butler) arrive at their Oregon campsite where they have decided to go on vacation to get away from the strains of her job as a lawyer and Tad’s final thrust on his Ph.D. dissertation research. As they get settled, we discover the nature of the partnership, their careers and interests, and note that Melissa seems distracted and troubled.
Park ranger Melba Abraham (a prickly, yet engaging and likable Kim Sykes) stops in to welcome Tad whom she has known from the past when he was doing research there. Cowboy Clyde Clark (a terrific and deep performance by Stephen Bradbury) intrudes on the couple and makes himself at home with clever witticisms, quips, and sharply delivered homespun humor which initially Melissa finds off-putting, but which she gradually becomes endeared to as the play progresses.
When Tad and Melissa are alone, the truth comes out that she is pregnant. This is the source of her anxiety and as their discussion evolves, we learn that Melissa has changed her thought processes and arguments against having children. The playwright sensitively includes in Melissa’s characterization the recognition of the difference between the head and the heart, the difference between intellectualizing what one would do and confronting the heartrending emotions about making the right decision when confronted with a reality one has difficulty coping with. We come to understand that for Melissa, intellectualizing about the necessity of population control and abortion and facing the emotional impact of having an abortion are two entirely different circumstances which equally try her soul and force her to a standstill.
Much to Tad’s chagrin, Melissa posits that she might decide to have the child. She asks him if he would raise it with her and continue with their hoped-for marriage plans. They are at a crucial stage in their relationship – it was heading in a matrimonial direction, but Tad is also at a crucial stage in his career. The discussion stresses both of them.
The playwright presents the issues in the first part of the play and in the second continues to add nuances to Melissa’s dilemma, one of them involving an old boyfriend, Duffle (a fine performance by Jed Orlemann), whom she has contacted perhaps to manipulate Tad, perhaps to provide a comfort zone to help her decide whether to keep the child. When Ari is called away to rework his dissertation and for other reasons, Duffle shows up and the playwright offers him up (in irony) as Melissa’s savior to resolve the painful situation she faces. What should, what must she do? The play engages us and keeps us interested in what Melissa ultimately will decide.
By Act II, after Ari has left, Melba and Melissa warm up to each other and Melba shares her wisdom about her life. She is a support for Melissa; the growing relationship between the two characters is finely developed and the inclusion of the character of Melba’s son Billy (Gilbert L. Bailey II) is an important touch. Likewise, Melissa’s relationship with Clyde is beautifully written and evolves as they become friends. I cannot praise enough Stephen Bradbury’s exceptional and profound portrayal of the engaging Clyde.
By the end of the play Melissa makes her decision, though it is opaquely drawn and open to interpretation. We know, in the last analysis, that people’s minds do change, as the playwright has implied with the clever direction of Mel Cobb and fine acting by DiGiovanni, whose characterization leaves the possibility that she is capable of making any of the choices posited in the play.
The key theme of Melissa’s Choice is that fortunately, there are many avenues that Melissa may take; it is not necessarily important which one she chooses. Of course, we are reminded that in the U.S., the roads to her final decision are numerous. In other countries there are only two: an illegal abortion or carrying to term. However, we must be mindful that in the U.S., the situation may change because of political expediency. There are those who would throw up roadblocks to remove the many avenues of choice and indirectly control a woman’s decision about her mind, body and soul. The subversion would be to return her to a position of chattel (property) and reduce her to a non-human status, taking from her the human privilege of making her own decisions.
Thus, the play’s overarching theme is an important one: Melissa has choices about what to do. For the most part the play shines this brilliant and welcoming light. Many sections of the dialogue are exceptional, pithy, beautifully written. On the other hand, the dream sequences where Melissa steps out of time into a fantasy, perhaps from the shock she emotionally puts herself in, could have been tightened. The scenes’ effects are haphazard as are the playwright’s apparent underlying intentions for them. There are a few of these sequences and some fare better than others; their purpose is confusing and distracting. The action is compelling enough without them.
Also, there is an interesting underlying issue. Despite the theme that Melissa has choices, in one way the playwright decries this with irony and indicates that her choices are indeed limited. Tad, as the character is written, is somewhat autocratic. His characterization is brilliantly drawn with this flaw: with all his liberality, he is ultimately steering Melissa’s choice under the auspices of allowing her the freedom to choose between him and the child. She must ultimately decide upon one or the other; his intellectual rationale is a potential blind for selfishness and ego. The irony is that Tad is indirectly as inflexible about his desires having to be satisfied as Duffle is conservative and inflexible in his political views. Melissa loses on both counts.
In shaping Melissa’s conundrum, the playwright has cleverly added the subtle complexity of Tad’s characterization; the undercurrent (he is charming about it) is that the situation must end up the way he wants; it cannot be her way. He has given her an ultimatum, regardless of how sweetly he has framed it.
If this couple is end out their years together, putting this experience behind them, it will take tremendous compromise on the part of Melissa. And as her character is revealed, it is unclear whether she will be willing to make that compromise with all of the sacrifices of personal autonomy that it entails. Will she be willing to become someone she isn’t? It is an inauspicious continuance for a relationship that has already taken a huge bend in the road with her emotional changes of heart.
Thus, Melissa has many choices, but in making her final decision, she must choose very carefully, indeed, for on every avenue there is the potential for heartbreak, pain and loss in the trenchant folkways of this subterranean “man’s world.”
Melissa’s Choice is a fascinating and profound production, well acted, well conceived, well directed. It certainly will give you much to think about. Presented by the Worcester Shakespeare Company & Golden Squirrel Theater, Melissa’s Choice will be at The Lion Theatre until May 22.[amazon template=iframe image&asin=0312620543][amazon template=iframe image&asin=1567692095]