Abortion is a conversation stopper. It's a topic most people avoid outside of debate, too controversial even for prime-time television. Yet ACT's world-premiere mainstage production of Mitzi's Abortion confronts the taboo and its emotional politics head-on. It's the story of the traumatic choices that Mitzi (Sharia Pierce), a young military wife, faces when her otherwise uneventful pregnancy develops tragic complications in the second trimester. Mitzi's unborn child is fatally deformed with anencephaly, and though this condition might cause her to carry the doomed fetus for over a year, her military insurance will not allow her to abort.
Mitzi's Abortion ACT Theatre, 700 Union St., 206-292-7676, www.acttheatre.org. $10–$54. Various dates and times. Through Aug. 20.
Elizabeth Heffron's script, which was commissioned for the 2003 FringeACT Festival of New Plays and given ACT's first New Play Award in 2005, is based on several nearly identical situations in which Tri-Care military insurance denied women the option of termination for fetal anencephaly. (In the case of one Everett woman, the state ordered that Tri-Care cover abortion, only to have the ruling overturned in 2005.) It's a touchy subject, and certainly not a cheerful one—yet Mitzi's Abortion is not without humor. Newly pregnant Mitzi immediately decides that learning Esperanto trumps her intro to Catholicism classes. What could be more practical than a universal second language?
Even as her life unravels, Mitzi finds solace speaking with the apparitions of St. Thomas Aquinas and Reckless Mary, a 17th-century midwife. Reckless Mary's tirades against the scientific patriarchy and Aquinas' ambivalent Catholicism not only symbolize Mitzi's struggle but also provide fittingly dark comic relief. I suspect this candid approach to such an "unspeakable" subject could put off more conservative audience members. The play's title itself might keep away the staunchest pro-lifers. However, although the play is about abortion, it does not glorify it. Mitzi suffers alone in anger and grief, while those around her attempt to pick apart her crisis.
Heffron draws the characters from a diversity of backgrounds, such that no two have the same convictions, and even the most bullheaded personalities on both sides of the debate are somewhat sympathetic. Conflicts arise in unexpected areas. In Mitzi's Esperanto entourage, bisexual Nita is rabidly pro-choice, yet Tim, who is homosexual, is against abortion for equally personal reasons. What if, he asks, the same technology used to detect Down's syndrome could eventually test for a "gay" gene in unborn fetuses? The play speaks straight to the heart of this matter—the more technology plays into choice, the more complicated it becomes.
Director Kurt Beattie treats Mitzi's pregnancy with a sincerity that at times approaches uncomfortable frankness. But this candor succeeds greatly in keeping the play grounded in reality and off a political pedestal. The result is that Mitzi's Abortion is neither decidedly pro-choice nor pro-life, despite the obvious horror of Mitzi's condition. The play tries not to take sides, but it does give a voice to the frustrating ambiguity of even the most hopeless situations.
Rather than letting the conversation end with the curtain call, ACT is holding discussions with the cast and crew in the first-floor cabaret following every performance. After the story's inevitable and sorrowful end, this opportunity for audience members to share their differing perspectives on the play provides welcome closure—a fitting touch to this remarkable, powerful piece of theater, and a small step toward finding a common vocabulary for grief.
Here, finally, the metaphor of Esperanto makes sense: a need for a universal language where one is lacking. And though the non-Esperantists in the audience cannot understand the words to "Over the Rainbow" as Mitzi sings it at her baby's funeral, there is nothing more heartfelt than this, her final farewell to the ashes of her child.