I can certainly understand why Deux Filles co-producers Deanna Dunmeyer and Sarah Newhouse picked "The Water Children" for their Equity Members Project. The roles they play in it show them off to perfection. Dunmeyer takes the central character, Megan, a woman who had an abortion at the age of sixteen and is conscious that she is approaching the end of her window of opportunity for childbearing. Her character is a volatile one, skittering rapidly from one edge of her unresolved ambivalence to the other: rife with regret and hope and anguish; cracking jokes, taking stands that crumble beneath her; lashing out and breaking down and finishing in a flood of cathartic tears and a rush of healing joy. Given what is, objectively, a pretty shallow character, Deanna Dunmeyer the actress demonstrates depth. Sarah Newhouse's artistic opportunity is for breadth. She plays Megan's agent-- oh, yes: Megan is an actress-- and also Megan's mother and her staunchly feminist lesbian roommate. All three authority figures make similar authoritative demands on Megan, but in quite different styles. Newhouse almost succeeds in making the three roles people rather than positions, not easily done with stick figures drawn to represent aspects of Megan's unexamined consciousness. Newhouse adopts a different voice, posture, rhythm and hairdo for each, and is well nigh unrecognizable when she reappears. She proves herself the pattern card of a versatile actress who can be trusted to bring to convincing life a variety of roles. The canny pair have surrounded themselves with talented performers in the play's smaller roles, inspired excellent work from their design team of (Set) Emily Dunn, (Lighting) Sarah Eisel & David Sinaiko, (Costumes) Liza Hope, put themselves in Sinaiko's capable hands for stage direction, and come out winners.
I was moved by the emotions Deux Filles conjured up from Wendy Macleod's script-- but I don't think I or anyone else was enlightened by it. MacLeod constructs her plot around a member of the educated but economically disadvantaged classes who is 36 years old and unmarried and trying to sustain a career in a field where jobs are few and dwindle even further as a woman ages. Megan's abortion when she was sixteen becomes part of her professional resume when she auditions for the part of a woman who has come to regret her own teen age abortion and has joined the pro-life forces. If she lands this part Megan will play it in a commercial for the campaign of an anti-abortion group headed by a charismatic leader (Peter Haydu) right out of recent headlines who just happens to share the unusual first name-- Randall-- of the most notorious of such leaders. Megan's political position is pro-choice: but flattery, money, Miss MidAmerica looks, talent, and her own nascent fear that she may have missed forever a unique and miraculous experience of motherhood, all conspire to turn her into her the movement's poster girl and commercial spokeswoman. Randall courts her, determined to convert Megan to a real life wife and mother fit for the head of the Movement. Her roommate hectors her, telling Megan that if she had an ounce of integrity she'd get on the picket line and repudiate the lies she recited so convincingly because she was an actress being paid to do so. Sounds like a set-up for satire, doesn't it? Or at least for Brechtean irony, from which we all would learn just how hard it is to figure out what one's own moral position is, let alone force it onto others. Life, as the old saw has it, is a comedy for those who think, a tragedy for those who feel. The doubling of characters by most of the cast, the quick changes and extreme distribution of traits-- when I saw the closing night performance, director David Sinaiko subbed for John Michael Gilbert as a rabidly bonkers anti-abortion gun nut obviously based on murderer John Salvi, and also played a Buddhist priest probably based on Yoda; Georgia Lyman was cute as a button as Crystal, a developmentally challenged pro-life disciple who claims to have started life as an orphan fetus plucked out of a garbage pail, and doubled as Megan's cat (!); Juan Luis Acevedo contributed a snotty TV director and a flaming hairdresser; and Beno Chapman embodied every sentimental advertising cliché as the ghost of the boy Megan might have given birth to if she hadn't had the abortion at sixteen-- all these exaggerated figures point toward comedy's distancing and paradox, and toward the opportunity to analyze the politics that shape the passions roused by the issue of childbearing as a moral choice. But that's not not the direction Macleod's script takes. Sentimental, specious, exploitive-- whatever the dismissive terms are for a piece that bursts full speed out of the box and then turns to mush, I'm afraid they apply here.
What our exemplary heroine in fact does in the course of the plot is to seduce the antiabortion leader, challenge him to grant her the right to decide whether to abort the child they conceive, and when he protests that he should have the right to father it and husband her, declare that Randall has flunked her spouse test and their marriage is off. While refusing to marry Randall she will use the money from the pro-life organization's job and the sperm she got from its leader to have the son she has always wanted, the child that "makes up for" the ghostly son she aborted when she was sixteen and has felt guilty about ever since. Presumably while denying the duped preacher any rights as the sperm supplier, our heroine will expect Randall to pay child support for the next 21 years while she raises their son: how else is an unemployed aging actress going to support a kid in NYC? MacLeod contrives to make Megan's totally unprincipled maneuverings seem justified, at least momentarily, and sounds a note of uplift when Megan's ghost son forgives her in a scene at a Japanese shrine to aborted babies who have gone back to the Otherworld to await a mother's embodiment at a more propitious time-- the "Water Children" of the title. But this is not the path of Enlightenment.
MacLeod wrote the "The Water Children" on commission from Amblin Entertainment/Dreamworks. I'm tempted to believe that she set out to construct a cheap pandering TV movie of the week and then got caught up in her own unresolved feelings around childbearing, and that's why she wrote this overdetermined potboiler with a white hot stream of living emotion running through it that moved me and some of the rest of the audience to tears-- because she couldn't help herself. But maybe it happened the other way around-- MacLeod started out to do a serious study of what a choice for or against childbearing entails, and got sidetracked into entertaining wish fulfillment fantasies instead. Too bad. Child-bearing is an experience and a responsibility central to the lives of most of the women in the world, and in societal and personal terms it has changed radically in the evolutionary equivalent of the blink of an eye. There is unexplored material here to fill dozens or even hundreds of plays. We all need to feel the change, a process to which Macleod's play and Deux Filles production contributes. But even more, we need help to try to come together to make sense of it.