Many writers forget that in order to create a valid work of art in response to a controversial issue, be it the war, violence in the media, or the death penalty, a piece must integrate opinion into a narrative that both supports its thesis and entertains. Without a gripping story or intriguing, believable characters, all that is left is posturing. Girls in Trouble, the supremely entertaining work currently mounted at the Flea, demonstrates a keen understanding of all sides of the hot-fire topic of abortion. Playwright Jonathan Reynolds makes one smart choice after another in a charged work that never stoops down to mere demagoguery.
Reynolds understands that no matter where one might stand on the right-to-life debate, the underlying issue is one of respect: of feelings, of trust, of privacy, and that is what his work brings to life. As a result, it is one of the most engaging works I have ever experienced at the Flea.
Trouble, directed by Flea founder Jim Simpson, is a triptych of three unique vignettes that reveal the different mores of three time periods in the last fifty years. While this concept isn’t entirely new – HBO’s If These Walls Could Talk did very much the same thing nearly fifteen years ago – the work shows how little progress we have made as a society in tolerating each other’s differences and stepping outside our own solipsistic viewpoints.
Beyond that, Trouble also provides several meaty opportunities for its Bats, the astonishingly capable group of repertory players at the Flea. Andy Gershenzon captivates in the play’s first portion, as Hutch, a collegiate gool ol’ boy who races across state lines late one night with a friend, Teddy (Brett Aresco), to get his one-night stand, Barb (Betsy Lippitt) a crude illegal abortion. Hutch is trying to race Barb back post-procedure in time for her morning exam. Gershenzon is fully committed to playing his part as reprehensibly as Reynolds demands; there isn’t a false note in his portrayal of a character who wants to be unhindered in life with utter disregard for the damage he might leave in his wake. He is human, in many of the ugliest ways imaginable.
This sequence is familiar, particularly as Hutch and the gang finally meet Sandra (Akyiaa Wilson), the nurse who will help Barb, but Simpson’s genius lies in using the situation as a mirror. How much of ourselves do we recognize in Hutch, or even Barb? Would we behave in a similar fashion? How, in fifty years, has so little changed? Pay close attention to the subtle work of Aresco as well, who makes the malleable Teddy a perfectly realized example of tacit approval.
Trouble heats up in its second act in a great showdown between Amanda (Laurel Holland) and Cynthia (Eboni Booth). Set in modern times, Amanda is an NPR host with a gorgeous career, apartment (John McDermott did the set design) and daughter. However, she also has a problem: an unwanted pregnancy. Sunny is a pro-life advocate who bluffs her way into Amanda’s apartment to dissuade her from an imminent abortion. Reynolds has both Amanda and Sunny recite the expected rhetoric in defense of their respective sides, but in a way that informs the characters more than shouts to the audience. It is perhaps Reynolds’ greatest accomplishment that one can never truly infer his stance on this issue by play’s end.
Booth and Holland are incendiary. The irony is that the more the two women argue, the more similar they appear to be. While their battle royale is akin to a great tennis match, the two actresses are so in sync with one another, and Simpson helms the act so deftly that it plays more like virtuoso jazz piece. In essence, Reynolds uses Trouble as the sugar to help his medicine go down. Without shoving it down our throats, he makes his point clear. Regardless of one’s opinion, it is never right to turn a private matter into a public game that always requires a winner and a loser.
Booth is the evening’s MVP, appearing in all three sequences. She commands the stage for the first act closer, a daring spoken-word piece in which Sunny, a pregnant woman, laments her situation, the man who helped her get there, and the ramifications of her options. Booth nimbly moves around the dialogue and gets under the emotions. How she is able to play three so disparate women in the course of one show and not look exhausted is beyond me. I’ll let it remain her secret.
But it’s no secret that Reynolds and Simpson have created a must-see work. Trouble sheds light on a fight that shows no sign of stopping any time soon. It’s easy to be blinded when discussing a taboo subject. In an entertaining – no, riveting – way, this play reminds us that beneath the issues are real people. Regardless of their flaws, they cannot be forgotten.