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THEATER REVIEW : Building Bridges in the Abortion War

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The recent gunfire at abortion clinics in Massachusetts intensified a new and bloodier chapter in one of the nation’s most bitter disputes.

So the timing of the Southern California premiere of “Keely and Du” at San Diego Repertory Theatre is remarkably pertinent. In this and other productions throughout much of America, “Keely and Du” has tried to bridge the gulf between the seemingly intractable sides of the abortion battle by dramatizing the common humanity of the combatants.

Playwright Jane Martin--actually the pseudonym for a writer or team of writers of unknown gender--is largely successful in this heroic effort.

Keely, who is pregnant and seeking an abortion, and Du, a nurse with radical anti-abortion beliefs, reach a state of communication and affection without ever compromising their essential positions. Activists from either side who see this play should find it a lot harder to depersonalize and demonize the opposition.

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Which is not to say that both camps will find the play equally satisfying.

In the scenario within the play, Keely is one of four pregnant women who have been kidnaped by “Operation Retrieval” while on the verge of abortions. The four were selected because of their geographical distribution and also because of the different circumstances of their pregnancies. But we don’t see the other three.

Keely stands in for all of them--and Keely’s pregnancy was the result of a rape by her estranged husband. The leader of her captors, a middle-aged preacher named Walter, explains: “Rape has always been understood as the extreme edge of abortion policy, and we must make clear that infant rights extend even into this catastrophic area. The rape victim must be given support on every level, but the fact of the child is critical.”

By focusing on Keely rather than a woman who became pregnant under less horrifying circumstances, Martin makes it easier for the audience to sympathize with the abortion-rights side. The fact that Walter is so self-righteous makes it even easier. There is no corresponding figure from the abortion-rights side for us to dislike.

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Nonetheless, “Keely and Du” never becomes as one-sided on the subject of abortion as “Oleanna” was on the subject of sexual harassment. That’s because of Du.

Walter (Navarre Perry) leaves the kidnaped Keely (Laurie Williams) chained to a bed in a basement, determined to keep her there until it’s too late to abort, watched over primarily by 65-year-old, white-haired, cardigan-wearing Du (Terry Eaton). Unlike Walter, Du is genuinely interested in listening to Keely and finding some way of relating to her.

Keely initially won’t talk, so Du starts telling her own story. One of 10 motherless kids who always had to care for the younger ones, she sees nothing extraordinary in putting someone else’s interest before her own. Her own marriage wasn’t passionate at first but eventually got better. Now both she and her husband are anti-abortion warriors, and she’s willing to go to jail for the rest of her life on behalf of the cause.

Du breaks a few of her camp’s lesser rules in cahoots with Keely. In the play’s unlikeliest detail, she even brings Keely beer for her birthday. Du’s so sympathetic, in contrast to the rigid Walter, that Keely eventually opens up. Although this might sound predictable and schematic, it doesn’t feel fake.

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Near the end of the play, Walter brings Cole (Trent De Long), the now-reformed husband/rapist, down to Keely’s basement to plead with her to come back and bring the baby with her. A truly harrowing scene results.

The four principal actors are terrific. Eaton glows with moral concern, while Williams burns with indelible rage and hopelessness. Only a couple of cosmetic details aren’t quite right about Williams’ performance: Her pregnancy never begins to show, and her hair is so close-cropped that it makes Du’s offer to put it up in curls seem ludicrous.

*

Producer-director Stuart Hynson Culpepper finds a few moments of intentional and welcome comedy in the juxtaposition of Walter’s rhetoric and Keely’s desperation. He also maintains the play’s urgency except for one major misstep--he ignored the published text’s recommendation to do without an intermission, and then he scheduled the intermission one scene too late, ending the first act with a whimper. He also should turn up the volume on one scene where Du and Walter are whispering; a few of the lines were lost.

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Still, this production generally does justice to the play, which pulls off the difficult task of bringing a bit of light as well as heat to an already red-hot issue.

* “Keely and Du,” Lyceum Space, 79 Horton Plaza, San Diego. Tonight and Saturday, 8 p.m., Sunday, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Ends Sunday. $18. (619) 235-8025. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.

Terry Eaton: Du

Laurie Williams: Keely

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Trent De Long: Cole, Orderly 1

Navarre Perry: Walter

Shannon Calder: Prison Guard

D. Malcolm Love: Orderly 2

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Stuart Hynson Culpepper in association with San Diego Repertory Theatre presents Jane Martin’s play. Directed by Culpepper. Sets by John Redman. Lights by Scott O’Donnell. Costumes by Jack Taggart. Sound by Debby Van Poucke. Stage manager Diana Moser.


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