Friday, May 18, 2018

Tom Horan's 'The Pill' inaugurates the new Phoenix Theatre's versatile black box

The women of "The Pill" triumphantly salute the play's title character.
This morning's public-radio news comes with two disturbances updating the war on medical science: deadly hostility to vaccination in Pakistan stalling the elimination of polio there and of the Trump Administration's move to cut public funding to any American organization breathing a word about reproductive rights, including the option of abortion.

There is no doubt that Margaret Sanger's struggles are alive in today's world. "The Pill," the first production on the new Phoenix Theatre's Basile "black box" stage, focuses on the health pioneer's  role in spurring the development of oral birth-control medication for women. The innovation was shrouded in political controversy from its gestation onward, as Tom Horan's new play makes clear. Sex and politics continue their age-old brouhaha.

Horan, Phoenix playwright-in-residence, thankfully does not take a "biopic" approach to his subject. There's precious little name-dropping or rehashing of ancient battles. Of course there was a long foreground to Sanger's involvement with the Pill, and patrons of "The Pill" can get plentiful details in the useful program essay. After World War II, the aging radical nurse already had several decades of agitation behind her, involving recurrent brushes with the law for her crusading journalism as well as her clinical activities.

The play displays Sanger's difficulty quelling repeated discouragement: the fires that blazed in her young adulthood are still burning brightly. And the crusader's sometimes feisty relationships with a team committed to her vision of medical progress in controlling fertility tend to stoke her commitment, regardless of sometimes overwhelming fatigue and stress.
Battle-weary Margaret fortifies herself with a large martini.

At the preview performance Thursday, Constance Macy vividly embodied both competing
tendencies. The physical and mental toll of Sanger's work was palpable, as was her determination. Whether laughing uproariously, ranting or collapsing, this Margaret Sanger at such extremes finds balance in a clear, steady vision and steely compassion for women, most of them poor and lacking basic rights to health care and family planning.

Her compassion is triggered by one of them, Sadie Sachs, who stands for all the women Sanger treated and advocated for. Played with plaintive intensity by Jenni White, Sadie makes the composite pleas for help of those facing repeated pregnancies without many resources or much practical support, including doctors who advise that a poor wife's only escape from dangerous exploitation as a baby-maker may be to "sleep on the roof."

Bill Simmons' direction is fully in the spirit of Horan's concept. The story, heart-tugging though it certainly is, is given a sprightly style. The movement is energetic and beautifully coordinated, flowing along the room's four aisles with a luminous playing space at the center. Cast members bring and take away props, and the short scenes are consistently focused dramatically, with the enhancement of Laura Glover's lighting design.

Dr. Rock subjects Margaret to withering scrutiny.
The dialogue distantly evokes everything from the moral earnestness and pathos of Arthur Miller to the witty paradoxes and existential jokery of Oscar Wilde and Tom Stoppard. The all-woman cast has the virtue of underlining the irreducibly female significance of the liberation that the Pill offered.

The controversies outlined are not exclusively on a progress-vs.-prejudice scale: Science is often threatened by scientism — a faith that uses science as an excuse for blinkered practices and beliefs like the eugenics that shadowed Sanger's endorsement of the Pill's testing on ill-informed and vulnerable Puerto Rican women.

Sanger's diverse team of supporters is given spiky individuality in the performances of Jen Johansen as the dashing, ideologically skeptical Dr. John Rock, Arianne Villareal as the gabby, insightful, high-strung researcher Dr. Pincus, and Jan Lucas as Katherine McCormick, a salty cosmopolite, veteran Sanger ally and heiress to the International Harvester fortune.

We have generally moved from believing in the pharmutopia promised in the 1950s, and Horan's play subtly acknowledges the difference. But we still seem to lack certainty about what kind of restraints are proper to put upon individual potential and freedom, and how much to allow traditional biases the right to control the lives of others.

"The Pill" addresses such issues seriously and delightfully — which may seem an odd approach, but it works in a production this buoyant and well-honed. It's good medicine for several of society's perpetual ills, and the prescription is renewable.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]

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