BWW Reviews: Theater J's THE ARGUMENT is Stirring and Masterfully Written

I don't envy any playwright who uses abortion as the central conflict of their piece. Maybe it's because the issue continues to be endlessly debated and emotionally charged; but the sheer mention of the word has the potential to stunt the audience's ability to be open-minded about the action onstage. And yet Theater J's stirring production of The Argument astutely refocuses abortion not as a hypothetical policy debate, but rather as an option one couple must openly consider as they experience an unexpected pregnancy.

Playwright Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros does something brilliant with The Argument in that she doesn't push ideology or present a one-sided view of the abortion debate. Instead, she frames the story around Sophie and Phillip, ages 42 and 49. Their whirlwind relationship of 10 months comes to an unexpected halt when Sophie discovers that she is pregnant. Suddenly they find themselves on opposing sides regarding the baby's future, and indeed the future of their relationship.

Susan Rome's performance is exciting to watch because she understands the emotional intricacy of the role and does a great job showcasing the sheer torment Sophie's going through as she seeks to weigh all her options. While never ranging on hysterical, Rome's Sophie is emotional and honest. The audience sees the frustration in the situation and the realization that whatever the decision, Sophie's life is going to change in a major way.

Although it's not just Sophie's life that is going to change, but also that of her boyfriend Phillip, wonderfully played by James Whalen. From the audience's perspective, it's scary how much we initially see ourselves empathizing with Phillip only to become distressed at the rigidness of his position. Whalen is tremendous in showcasing Phillip's evolution from lovable boyfriend to one who's unequivocally set on persuading Sophie's decision.

Rome and Whalen are magnificent together onstage. They do a terrific job balancing the comedy and seriousness of The Argument. Neither dominates the other which is perfect because it allows the audience to equally consider each character's respective position.

Jefferson A. Russell has a brief appearance mid-way through The Argument as the counselor Sophie and Phillip consult. While Russell's scene is quite brief, he does a solid job delivering a key moment in the show when he tells Sophie and Phillip that they are hearing each other but not listening to each other. It's a powerful message in the context of the show, and equally as powerful when one considers how contentious the abortion debate has become in the United States.

Shirley Serotsky's direction is superb simply because of its restraint. There are several scenes within The Argument that have the potential to become overblown. But Serotsky doesn't let that happen, thus keeping the play grounded in the reality. And that's significant because when discussing abortion, any misstep outside of the realm of reality risks losing the credibility The Argument seeks.

When I first heard that abortion was a central topic of The Argument, I was a bit concerned. The ferocity of the abortion debate has led many to close-off any viewpoint which they interpret as contradictory to their own. However, Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros's masterfully written play is not meant to be another exhaustive debate on the issue. It simply asks us to watch the play not through the prism of our own beliefs, but through the actions of the characters onstage. Theater J's production asks a lot of questions, which is what good theater is supposed to do. It asks us to reconsider our beliefs and challenge our curiosity. The Argument at Theater J is theater at its finest and definitely worth seeing.

Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes with no intermission.

The Argument plays through November 24, 2013 at the Washington DC Jewish Community Center, 1529 16th Street, NW in Washington, DC. For tickets, call 1-800-494-8497 or purchase them online.

Photo: (L to R): Susan Rome and James Whalen; by Stan Barouh.

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