Written by Steve Wangh; Directed by Jessica Burr
Presented by Blessed Unrest
Off Off Broadway, Play
Runs through 6.3.23
122CC Theater, 150 First Avenue, 2nd Floor
by Emily Cordes on 5.30.23
(L-R) Rich Brown, Hilary Dennis, and Perri Yaniv in Misconceptions. Photo by Maria Baranova.
BOTTOM LINE: Blending the personal and political, Misconceptions offers a nuanced and engaging look at the many faces, voices, and stories within the abortion debate.
In its individual, social, and political implications, the subject of abortion is a perennially heated topic, and, in light of escalating state and federal attacks on women’s reproductive rights, one that has gained increasing prominence in America’s collective psyche. More pointedly, as the choice to give birth is both fundamentally personal and far-reaching, it is one in which strong moral convictions, pivotal life experiences, or deep-seated beliefs about gender, sexuality, responsibility, and free will can all come into play. In its production of Steve Wangh’s Misconceptions, Blessed Unrest widens the lens on this complex issue, revealing with empathy and insight the various factors behind the decision to keep, or end, a pregnancy.
Inspired by over thirty years of interviews and research, Misconceptions frames its subject matter through the story of Harriet (Hilary Dennis), a performance artist and single mother who, on the eve of a pivotal career moment, finds herself unexpectedly pregnant. Faced with the impact of this news, and the looming takedown of Roe v. Wade, Harriet copes by diving further into her art, using her plight as inspiration for an interview-based piece about choice.
In a process not unlike that of Misconceptions’ own development (and one to which Wangh makes several sly references), Harriet collects statements from various individuals touched by abortion, from college friends to lawyers, politicians, doctors, and authorities on all sides of the debate. Meanwhile, she finds herself equally supported and challenged by the loved ones in whom she confides, including her manager and friend Darcelle (Celli Pitt); her ex Jorge (Sean Mana), who is the baby’s father; and her mother (Ethelyn Friend), who faced similar conflicts in her early life. When this search for answers brings her no closer to resolution, Harriet must confront her fear and indecision to choose the best path forward.
Known for his work on such documentary plays as The Laramie Project, Wangh takes a similar approach to an equally faceted topic, and Misconceptions’ impact lies as much in its individual accounts as in the structural story that contains them. Aided by Calypso Michelet’s and Sera Bourgeou’s design elements, ensemble members Julie Becker and Rich Brown embody a variety of voices and perspectives, speaking through screen-like empty picture frames and cycling through numerous props and costumes mounted on the evocative wire hangers bordering the set. A Midwestern woman, now working as a Christian pregnancy counselor, recalls her childhood in the pro-life movement and her struggle to hide an unwanted pregnancy from her fundamentalist parents. A young actress, pregnant during a production of Medea, ponders Western culture’s sexual double standards and the historical fascination with, and condemnation of, women who eschew motherhood. Later, as Catholic pro-choice activist Frances Kissling, Becker echoes this sentiment in her analysis of the patriarchal fear of, and need to circumscribe, women’s ability to give life.
As Darcelle, Pitt calls out the systemic inequities that complicate such choices for people of color, and reveals striking parallels between views of fetuses and slaves in historical debates around “personhood” and “ownership.” Citing Shirley Chisholm, accounts of fugitive slaves protectively killing their children, and her own experience with sexual assault and teenage pregnancy, she rightly critiques the privilege that allows Harriet to stall her decision and view it from a safe intellectual distance. Taking abortion’s spiritual debate beyond mainstream Judeo-Christian trappings, an Islamic butcher (Perri Yaniv) maintains the holiness of sacrifice made in respect, and Pitt, as the Hindu goddess Kali, speaks to the creative and destructive cycles of existence, and mankind’s humbling smallness in the face of such mysteries.
While the show’s pro-life arguments are more limited in their expression (talk-show pundits; abortion-clinic gunmen), Misconceptions depicts them with similar nuance and dark humor, as evidenced by an anti-abortion lawyer’s discussion of children’s rights in the debate over whether to allow exceptions for rape or incest, and his subsequent imagined dialogue with a fetus (Yaniv) as an absentee and less-than-cooperative plaintiff. Likewise, Jorge’s recounts of parental-anxiety dreams, and Spanish-translated interviews with his friends, add respectful touches of male perspective on an inherently female, but broadly impactful, issue.
Like the twisting umbilical ropes of her installation piece, Dennis’ Harriet stands at the center of these complexities, poignant in her efforts to forge meaning, truth, and conviction from the voices around her. This, Misconceptions argues, is the paradox, and the point, of the abortion debate: for all of its numerous ideological and social layers, the issue is, at its core, a personal one, and even as we take multiple views into account, we must remember that the final choice lies with the individual. To do otherwise, it argues, denies not only the realities we live in but the respect due to the weight of the decision and the lives it affects.
(Misconceptions plays at 122CC Theater, 150 First Avenue, 2nd Floor, from May 11 through June 3, 2023. Performances are Mondays, Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 7:30; Sundays at 5. The running time is 120 minutes with one intermission. Tickets are $30 and are available at blessedunrest.org.)
Misconceptions is by Steve Wangh. Directed by Jessica Burr. Produced by Blessed Unrest. Scenic and Prop Design by Calypso Michelet. Costume Design by Sera Bourgeau. Sound Design by Kimberly S. O'Loughlin. Lighting Design by Jay Ryan. Production Stage Manager is Deanna Kahn.
The cast is Rich Brown, Hilary Dennis, Ethelyn Friend, Sean Mana, Perri Yaniv, Julie Becker, and Celli Pitt.