BWW Review: Innovocative Theatre Comes of Age with Jane Martin's Riveting KEELY & DU
I'll never forget his face. It was in the California desert, 1992, the year before KEELY & DU was released. The man, late 30's, was holding an anti-abortion placard, screaming against Roe v. Wade at the passing cars. The streets were lined with numerous anti-abortion protestors, but he's the one I remember. A young girl, having to be comforted by a friend, confronted him. "Sir," she said softly, wiping the tears from her face, "I was raped when I was twelve years old and got pregnant from it. The doctors said that if I had the baby I would die. So I had an abortion, and it saved my life. What else could I do?"
The protestor, obviously horrified, feverishly shook his head.
"What would you have wanted me to do?" the girl asked. "I would have died if I'd given birth. And the baby would've died too."
The man stopped shaking his head. He slowly smiled at her, a forced smile, not a nice one. Teeth gritted. "Then you would have both gone to heaven," he said firmly.
The young girl looked deflated by his words. The man dramatically turned away from her and continued his anti-abortion rant, angrily thrusting his placard over his head. Nobody changed their views; nobody even came close.
I recall this moment while watching Innovocative Theatre's riveting, not-to-be-missed KEELY & DU by playwright Jane Martin (a pen name). The play's abortion angle may scare off some potential theatre goers, but it shouldn't. Not with the excellence of the cast and the heightened emotions that are inevitable in a play like this. It only plays one more weekend (at the Stageworks facility), so mark your calendars, change your plans, and make sure to see it. If the theme throws you off, then there are two central performances in it that are as good as anything you will see in a long time.
We reviewers throw the phrase "must-see" around way too frequently, but in this case, it's appropriate. This is one must-see show.
KEELY & DU has a shocking premise for those unprepared: A young woman, impregnated from a rape and wanting an abortion, is kidnapped and held captive, chained to a bed, by anti-abortion zealots that believe they are doing the right thing in saving the unborn child. The play was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in drama in 1993-1994 (losing to Edward Albee's Three Tall Women), and it received the American Theatre Critics Association Award for Best New Play (1994). But don't worry: Twenty-five years later, it's still hot stuff. The show is so heavy (but make no mistake, it's still quite entertaining) that Innovocative Theatre's production is smartly followed by an eye-opening talk back after each performance. The audience members, as well as the cast, have a lot to say and need this to digest what they had just experienced.
The script is powerful, unforgettable, but at times becomes overlong and didactic. It's biggest saving grace is that, although it's 25 years old, it still rings true today (except for maybe a Faith Hill or Keith Urban reference thrown in for good measure). But the show sinks or swims with the performances of the titular duo, and in this production, it most indubitably swims!
I have never seen K.D. O'Hair onstage before, but as Keely, she gives an emotional tour de force. It's a "wow" performance if ever there was one, as powerful as anything you will see in the upcoming year. She starts appropriately screechy, full of fire, and then slowly melts to give us a glimpse of the human being that she was before the abduction. It's an exhausting role, obviously draining to play and, yes, to watch. This is soul-stirring work, gripping and harrowing. She makes the horrors in that basement seem so real; we're right there with her. She's so good, the show becomes sometimes too painful to watch.
My favorite performance belongs to Dawn Truax as Du. She is the heart and soul of KEELY & DU, and she lets her silences speak volumes. It's disquieting at first, watching her handcuff Keely to the bed while singing "You Are My Sunshine," but we soon see the real person there. She's a true believer, a zealot with a heart, who balances the show's debate. We sense her sensitivity, her heart, her love for a fellow human being. Everyone needs a Du in their life, just not one who gets so caught up in her passions that she goes to the farthest extremes (like chaining someone to a bed). There's a moment in Act 2 where three other characters are in hot debate, but I watched the silent Truax, listening, being, caught up in what was going on but unable to do or say anything. It's thrilling to see so much even when a character has nothing to say.
Keely and Du, playing opposite sides of the abortion debate, slowly bond. It's these two women against a world of men--men with power making all the key decisions. With O'Hair and Truax onstage, we get to witness two extreme acting styles, like Vivien Leigh and Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire. One woman is a volcano; one is a calming lake. One is edgy, a spitfire; the other is steadier, still emotional, but very real. Its very early in the year, but I'm sure I will remember both O'Hair and Truax when I sit down to pick the best performances of 2018.
The amiable Pete Clapsis plays the annoyingly self-righteous Walter, a rather thankless role. He's sort of an extreme anti-abortion salesman, offering books to Keely rather than real help. "He's with God," Du tells Keely, "but he's insufferable about it." He's the type of guy who has to keep monitoring his anger, preaching at rather than speaking to someone, and who even says "Thank you" after being spit in the face. Clapsis is effective, but oftentimes, especially in Act 2, he becomes too theatrical for the piece. We sense the actor acting, not being. This is readily apparent when compared with the realness, the humanity, that both O'Hair and Truax display. There's even a brief moment in Act 2 where he's so over the top, so showy, that it becomes almost sit-commy in his reaction to something Keely and Du have done. Demonstrative as his character often is, Clapsis is much better in his quieter moments. In fact, the scene where he describes in detail the suction type of abortion procedure, trying to hold back his tears, is the best work he has ever done.
There's a fourth character played by Ryan Bernier. It's a small role, but extremely memorable, and to avoid any spoilers I will not say anything more. I just find it interesting that two of the nicest guys in the local theatre scene, Clapsis and Bernier, portray such against-character types. Those who have seen their previous roles may be startled to witness their work here.
Staci Sabarsky, Artistic Director for Innovocative Theatre, makes her mark in our area with her strong direction of KEELY & DU--acting, stage movement, and pace are all top flight. The show may be too talky for some audience members, but that's a playwright issue, not a directorial one.
In her program note, director Sabarsky writes, "Things are not always just black and white, but varying shades of grey that we used throughout the show." Scenic designer Jeannine Borzello obviously listened because the set is grungy gray, sparse, with Keely's bed plopped center stage. It's claustrophobic, uncomfortable, even prison-like, the latter which makes the end even more powerful. The costumes are also winning, with the title characters dressed in similar gray attire (nothing is black and white, except the men's suits). The masks at the beginning are quite odd, somewhere between a full-faced Phantom of the Opera and Space Ghost.
Matt Beil's lighting is exceptionally strong, where as the bond between Keely and Du becomes closer, the lighting becomes softer. And there are fewer shocking moments than a dramatic turn in Act 2 bathed in red light. Sabarsky's sound design is also quite clever, especially the effect of hearing the baby's heartbeat. This brings it all home, a dramatic addition to the play, whatever side of the abortion issue you are on.
Innovocative Theatre entered the Tampa theatre scene last year with a serviceable Proof; it was a good show with lots of potential, but they weren't quite a local player yet. That has now changed. With the powerful KEELY & DU, they have finally arrived.
Innovocative Theatre's production of KEELY & DU plays at Stageworks until January 21.