Preg Knot

The religious fundies in Keely and Du trade in the toughest love. Members of a radical Christian movement called Operation Retrieval, they've kidnapped Keely, a pregnant woman headed for an abortion at a Cincinnati clinic. The Retrievalists are going to imprison Keely in a subterranean bunker until her seventh month—handcuff her to a bed, force her to read pamphlets and look at gruesome photos of abortions, and make her realize that terminating her pregnancy is the vilest kind of murder. They are going to make Keely love her baby—even though she was raped by her alcoholic husband and doesn't think she has the money, the nerve or the family to rear a child.

That's the setup of playwright Jane Martin's Keely and Du, now receiving a simply rendered, disquietingly effective production at the Vanguard Theatre Ensemble.

"Martin" is the pseudonym for a playwright—or group of playwrights—associated with the Humana Festival, the country's premier new-play forum. The reasons for anonymity are a mystery but have nothing to do with the volatile subject of abortion (indeed, Martin is credited with at least a dozen published plays). Keely and Du is sometimes equally mysterious. While the synopsis might lead you to believe it's positively pro-choice, the play is far subtler. Someone who has firm opinions about either side of the abortion debate may walk away from this production with those convictions strengthened; if they're honest, they'll also see uncomfortable holes in their own arguments.

Take Walter, the stern disciplinarian and man of God who is the leader of this particular Operation Retrieval cell. On any level, his actions are indefensible: he has kidnapped a young, confused woman and plans to imprison and brainwash her. Yet you get the unshakable feeling that he is sincere about his religious convictions and truly convinced that America's callous disregard for the unborn is evidence of an impending social apocalypse.

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One of Martin's best decisions was to give the most powerful and eloquent lines to Walter, easily the most unlikable character. At one point, Walter explains to Keely that abortion is nothing less than anarchy in the family, the basic unit of this country —"one nation under God." When that family collapses and when children make their own laws and speak nothing but anger, Walter says—and I think I've got his words right here—"then that nation will founder and become an obscenity that eats its own young."

It's decidedly right-wing politics, inextricably linked with religious fundamentalism—the kind of church/ state union only Jesse Helms or the Reverend Lou Sheldon would love. But it's the power of Walter's language and the strength of his convictions that gives his opinions such weight; it's rhetoric, but it's impressive rhetoric.

There are many ways to approach this character. I imagine it would be tempting to play him as a menacing, evil figure. Credit actor Paul Castellano for doing otherwise. His finely measured performance captures the inner turmoil of a man who truly believes he is doing the Lord's work—and who will do any ungodly thing to make sure that work gets done.

But Keely and Du isn't Walter's play. It's Keely and Du's. We've already met Keely (portrayed in fine fashion by Crystal Sutton), but Du is the play's real fulcrum. Du (Lorie Mumper) is the 65-year-old Operation Retrieval member assigned to care for Keely during her confinement. She cooks for her, bathes her and talks to her. It's their growing connection that sets the play's gruesome climax in motion, spurred by a surprise visit from Keely's husband (a wonderfully intense, creepily sincere Jason Wesley Green).

Du is the play's catalyst but also its most problematic aspect. We're supposed to buy that this sweet, grandmotherly figure who dotes on Keely is also a devout member of a radical organization. Martin doesn't do enough in her play to help us buy that dichotomy. Neither does Mumper, who is likable and believable but tips her hand too soon in the game; we know what's going to happen too early to really be surprised.

Thankfully, Keely and Du is concerned with more than plot, something director Wade Williamson understands. Williamson has produced a play with few extras. This play doesn't need them because it's more about perpetrators who are also victims in the ongoing battle over abortion—not just (depending on your politics) the fetuses who are aborted; whether soulless cells or sentient beings, they're only one kind of victim. The victims in Keely and Du are complicit in their own victimization. Their choices have turned what should be a question of life into a hateful and ugly war of words and actual violence.

The play ends on the same word, repeated twice: "Why?" The characters could be asking why someone would ever have an abortion. Or why anyone would prevent her from doing so. Or why so-called people of God sometimes do such hateful deeds.

While the question is variable, the answer provided by Keely and Du is always the same: there isn't enough love, the kind of love a woman needs from the people in her life—including herself—that will give her the confidence and strength she needs for the great responsibility of bringing a new life into this world.

Keely and Du at Vanguard Theatre Ensemble, 699A S. State College Blvd., Fullerton, (714) 526-8007. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 6 p.m. Through Dec. 16. $13-$15; student rush tickets at curtain time when available, $5.

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