With a gripping play about the timely, hot button issue of choice (as in to abort a fetus or keep it to term), few would expect four of its six characters to be men and even fewer would expect the playwright to be a white man from the Baby Boomer generation. In the case of Melissa’s Choice: An American Dilemma, running through October 16 at University of North Texas’ University Theatre, political correctness needs to take a seat and a chill pill. Steven Somkin’s work, directed by UNT drama professor Dr. Andrew B. Harris in its Texas premiere, not only embraces the multi-faceted issues at stake in a clear, fair-handed manner, it provides an engaging evening of theatre. For many years, Somkin worked as a physician at a Harlem adolescent clinic and counseled women about pregnancy. Deeply touched by the lives he encountered, he wrote this play. He knows whereof he writes.
No forceps-waggling, clinical sterility or creepy, back alley setting here: all action takes place in a peaceful Oregon camp site, nestled among the Ponderosa pines near the source of the Metolius River. An abrasively assertive, big city abortion rights attorney, Melissa, joins her PhD candidate science geek boyfriend for a two week romp in his beloved woods and confronts him with unanticipated “news” to complicate their relationship. Forced to make a hard “choice” she has aggressively advocated to others without question, Melissa considers the options alone when lover boy must return to the university for an emergency. She learns valid lessons about humanity’s gifts from unexpected sources: a sharp-tongued African-American forest ranger who embodies a Gaian spirit, her guitar strumming free-spirited son and a crusty old coot who hankers to sample Melissa’s charms yet finds his higher calling when comforting her with a sweet lullaby at the play’s most poignant moment. Unexpected, atypical, non-caricatured…each character adds another viable facet to the human dilemma around choice and holds audience interest with ease.
Melissa gets plagued with hallucinations, perhaps due to her fluctuating hormones. Fantasy elements verging on magical realism allow the audience to peer into the recesses of Melissa’s mind, heart and soul and add levity to what could become ponderous and preachy in a traditional script. Melissa invites an old beau to visit her in her solitude, a different sort of man from her science geek, in political orientation and POV on abortion. She fantasizes about the two men in combat over her affections in one of the play’s most fanciful moments of revelation. The “DNA Shuffle”, as danced by the show’s men, elicits gales of laughter while making a point. Language soars with effortless lyricism and vital punch throughout — suicide described as “one person’s tragedy, everyone’s sorrow and nobody’s fault”. It’s still a new work and could use a few edits for simplification. Why the old coot’s RV is blown to smithereens is unclear and distracting.
The play offers well-defined character arcs and interesting possibilities and “choices” for six capable actors. Director Harris cast good physical types for his university production and keeps them engaged, even as some of them seem a bit young for the roles. Diction and volume issues marred the production on opening night. Hopefully they speak up and with more clarity through the rest of the run. UNT senior BreAunne Smith gives the strongest performance as the forest ranger, bringing mystery and energized focus to the stage every time she’s in a scene. Donna Marquet’s scenic design makes excellent use of the intimate theatre space as a naturalistic playing area and conveys a convincing reality of place against the romanticized suggestion of a forest setting. This play would work quite well in a multitude of regional theatre venues, from community to professional level. The audience of all ages seemed to truly enjoy the performance.
Afterwards a brief discussion panel reviewed aspects of choice, monitored by Director Harris, and included former state Senator Wendy Davis. Other night’s panelists include Terri Burke from the ACLU of Texas, Karin Matula from the Gladney Center for Adoption and Rev. Dr. Daniel Kanter of the Unitarian Church of Dallas and Planned Parenthood.
Melissa’s Choice continues October 13,14 and 15 at 7:30pm and closes October 16 with a 2pm matinee in the RTFP Building at UNT.
Tickets: 940-565-2428 danceandtheatre.unt.edu
Photos supplied by Dr. Andrew B. Harris