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Abortion Play Requires Skillful Delivery

November 17, 2000|MIKE BOEHM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The argument over abortion rights is often shrill, angry and polarizing. It is apparently never-ending.

The cast of "Keely and Du," which opens tonight at the Vanguard Theatre Ensemble in Fullerton, hopes its enactment of an explosive, if fictional, story about abortion can provoke thoughtfulness rather than rancor.

Rehearsals have gone forward with the understanding that the play's the thing, rather than the expression of any personal conscience the actors might bring. And for the play to succeed, director Wade Williamson said, each side in the debate has to get its due on stage.

Offstage, there have been no sides taken. Until an interviewer started asking them their own views on abortion after a rehearsal last week, Williamson and the four actors--Paul Castellano, Jason Wesley Green, Lorie Mumper and Crystal Sutton--had not discussed the issue.

"I told them from Day One, we didn't need a round-table," said Williamson, the Vanguard's artistic director. "We're here to talk about the relationships [of the characters]. It's all there in the text."

"Keely and Du" was written by Jane Martin, a pseudonymous Kentuckian (or Kentuckians) believed by some to be the alter ego of Jon Jory, former producing director of the Actors Theatre of Louisville, Ky., and its annual Humana Festival of New American Plays. The play was a finalist for the 1993 Pulitzer Prize in drama.

Keely is a young woman who desperately wants not to bear the child of her brutal, drunken ex-husband, Cole. He has stalked and raped her, just to show who has the power.

We first see a drugged Keely coming to in a basement; en route to the abortion clinic, she was kidnapped by an underground movement of Christian zealots dedicated to preventing what they see as murder. She will be handcuffed to her bed in their safe house until it is too late for her to do anything but bring the pregnancy to term.

The cell's leader is Walter, a firebrand preacher type. Du is Keely's keeper. A folksy woman of 65, she believes unswervingly in her group's cause, but her natural warmth and kindliness bring about a bond with Keely that complicates the mission and sets up a shocking denouement.

The director and cast represent a wide cross section of opinion on the abortion issue--though none remotely as extreme as the play's Operation Retrieval zealots.

Castellano, who plays Walter, knows how volatile the issue is. As a sometime teacher of ethics and philosophy, he has presided--or, as he puts it, "refereed"--many discussions on abortion.

"In classrooms I've seen fistfights," he said. "This [production] is the most benign presentation of the argument I've ever seen."

Castellano has tried to set his familiarity with the issue aside in playing his part.

"The more knowledge you have factually can bias the performance. You have to fight against what you know."

He doesn't agree with Walter's methods, but he has to infuse them with logic and passion. "The worst thing you could do with Walter is play him as a stereotype. We want to make it hard for the audience to dismiss any character out of hand. We want them to think."

The cast and director split 3 to 2 on the abortion-rights issue, with some positions tempered by the deep ambivalence that many feel about it. They all praise "Keely and Du" for presenting characters who, if well-acted, should give both sides pause and room for thought.

"All in all there is a concerted attempt to be as fair as possible," Castellano said, although he acknowledges that the play ultimately comes down against extremism and on the side of Keely's need to control her fate.

Williamson says "Keely & Du" is "the strongest issue play" the Vanguard has done in its nine seasons.

"We do plays that put things out on the edge, but we know this was a real step for us. We're not going to answer all the questions. Someone who is very pro-choice, they're going to see their side of the issue. People who are pro-life will see their side, I hope. Our purpose is to put a face on the issue, to play the characters honestly and get discussion going."

*

SHOW TIMES

"Keely and Du." Vanguard Theatre Ensemble, 699A S. State College Blvd., Fullerton, in the College Business Park. Fridays and Saturdays, 8 p.m., Sundays, 5 p.m. Through Dec. 16. $13 to $15. (714) 526-8007.

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