Between the Idea and the Reality

Jane Martin's 1993 play, Keely and Du, currently in an engrossing production on the Alley's Arena Stage, takes on directly and viscerally one of the most troubling moral and political problems of our time: abortion. Set in the present in an unfinished basement in an unidentified American city, it portrays a "Christian underground" called "Operation Retrieval." Keely is a young pregnant woman kidnapped by Operation Retrieval in order to prevent her from proceeding with a planned abortion; Du is the elderly Christian woman who becomes the imprisoned Keely's keeper, caretaker, confidant and unlikely friend. Performed with impressive concentration by a rock-solid Alley cast anchored by Kimberly King (Keely) and Betty Fitzpatrick (Du), the play has a deceptive, Albee-like simplicity of structure that masks a large ambition: to boil down all the abstract and headline arguments over abortion into a most concrete and physical, particular case. One woman, one pregnancy, one choice.

That the play largely succeeds in this difficult task is a tribute not only to Martin's unadorned and straightforward script, but to the generally restrained and yet powerful performances by the four principals, including William Hardy as Walter, the patriarchal leader of the kidnappers, and John Feltch as Cole, Keely's ex-husband, rapist and would-be repentant father of her child. Ken Grantham has directed this potentially melodramatic material without going over the top, and the result is a production that, without grandstanding, for the most part earns its emotionalism and contemporary connection.

As if to acknowledge the de facto modernist minimalism of the theatrical situation -- a woman handcuffed to a bed and guarded by another, in a cheerless, locked basement -- Martin has structured her two-act play as a series of many short scenes, dimly lit and punctuated by frequent blackouts. When Keely awakes from an anesthetic and discovers her predicament, she is first terrified and then enraged, refusing even to speak to her captors. Time and hunger wear Keely down, and she discovers that Du, while a true believer, has little vanity for her unhappy duty. As the days pass, the two women discover that they have more in common than either first imagined, and they slowly form an unlikely conspiracy against their absurd situation -- and against the men who have placed them in it.

Their improvised sisterhood is not an easy one, and its awkwardness in effect makes possible the play's abrupt and inevitably unhappy climax. They are different in generation and belief, and Keely's instinctive independence is foreign to the elderly Du, who learned as a child to defer to the ways of the world, father and husband. But the women are united in two crucial ways that come to form a powerful subtext to the play. They are equally suspicious of the grand abstractions and assumed rationalism with which men reflexively justify their claims to moral superiority; and they develop an almost instinctive camaraderie over the physical details of their lives and circumstances. One of the most amusing moments occurs when the two of them burst into uncontrollable laughter over Walter's perpetually wounded male dignity, and most powerfully effective are those scenes when they tell each other the details and memories of their lives. Those felt, realized memories bring them together, even as their roles of guard and prisoner force them apart.

That is not to say that Keely and Du is a play about the triumph of sisterhood. Sisterhood erupts defiantly beneath a very topical study of religious and moral bigotry, in which an individual woman's body and spirit are explicitly taken to be social property, a physical battleground upon which the entirely theological idea of conception-as-birth is to be defended at all costs. The image of Keely, chained to her bed while an ideological battle rages over whether she is one person or two, is a virtual allegory for the contemporary debate over abortion. An utterly private decision has become a public political circus, while the person who must -- for good or ill -- make the choice is treated as having only a limited, carefully circumscribed say in the matter. The situation would be ludicrous if it were not, as here, so bitter.

Within this context, Jane Martin's (because the playwright uses a pseudonym, few know if she's man or woman, but her empathies here are clearly female) script is remarkably inclusive of her characters, lending nuanced humanity to the pompous Walter and even to the brutishly painted Cole. Martin is helped tremendously here by the company's alert and keen-edged ensemble. Keely, of course, has the audience's sympathy from the first moments. But, in the most complex portrayal I've seen her deliver, Kimberly King gives Keely a convincing range, from defiance to desperation to resoluteness to foul-mouthed rage. Bettye Fitzpatrick also takes full advantage of one of the strongest roles the repertory has offered her, portraying a sensitive and enduring woman whose convictions are adamant, yet whose emotional wisdom is even more insistent. Her delicate economy of voice and gesture is also remarkable.

William Hardy, in the somewhat thankless role of the hectoring Walter, also nicely sidesteps caricature as he creates the figure of a man frozen inside a seemingly noble set of prescribed ideas. If Walter seems only half a fool, it's because Hardy provides a more sensitive half pretty much on his own.

Finally, although's he's present for only one long, crucial scene, John Feltch as Cole gives once again a terrific performance, an intensified piece of work that verges on the hallucinatory. Keely's denunciations have prepared us for an unredeemable brute of a man beyond human caring. With that introduction Feltch somehow manages, with an air of drowning desperation and near-crazed abjection written in his face, manner and voice, to convince us momentarily that even the wounded and bound Keely cannot possibly resist him. The moment is so carefully sustained by the two actors that her vengeance and his reaction, when they come, crash like thunderbolts. In that dank basement in that small arena, it is indeed a hard-earned moment of high drama.

After that striking climax and its immediate aftermath, Martin appends a brief, distracting epilogue. Apparently in a desire for even-handedness, she drifts from awful energy back to ambivalence. But a play is not an equation, required to balance its terms. It is a physical investigation of the invisible, and in Keely and Du, King, Fitzpatrick, Hardy and Feltch form a brave crew of intrepid explorers.

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