Pregnant with meaning

Playwright Elizabeth Heffron has taken one of today's most volatile topics and tried courageously to present its complexity without making her play a harangue. "Mitzi's Abortion," currently on stage at ACT Theatre, has its flaws. It is, however, a thought-provoking production that can't be ignored.

Mitzi and Chuck are in love. An unexpected pregnancy leads to marriage. The thought of motherhood is a bit overwhelming at first, but then the concept grows on Mitzi along with the hard bulge that begins to replace her flat stomach.

When Chuck ships off with his Army unit to a war-torn land, Mitzi goes on with her life. She paints their small apartment a sunny yellow, continues working and studying Esperanto, and puts up with advice about pregnancy offered by everyone she knows and a few she doesn't know. St. Thomas Aquinas materializes and visits her regularly. Then along comes Reckless Mary, a midwife from the 17th century.

Mitzi lets them all talk, but her focus is more and more on her own changing body and the fetus with whom she's sharing her life. In her mind it's becoming her baby, her very own lovable baby. Ah, but fate is cruel. A sonogram reveals that what she's carrying is a body without a brain. Her baby is an anencephalic. It will either die in her uterus or die at or shortly after birth, and the absence of the brain might even prevent Mitzi from going into labor at term.

As her doctor explains this, Mitzi is confused and skeptical. He must be wrong, she thinks. This couldn't possibly be a description of her baby. She rejects his suggestion that she consider a medical termination of the pregnancy. She's distraught. Termination really means abortion, and she would never consider that.

As Mitzi gradually understands the full horror of her predicament, she decides that the doctor is right. Then she finds out that she can't terminate the pregnancy. Chuck's government health insurance policy forbids abortions, and she can't afford $10,000 to pay for it herself. The situation would be impossible except for the humane doctor who is willing to commit fraud in order to provide her with the recommended medical care. Mitzi recovers, but the grief of her loss will be with her forever.

Heffron clearly believes that the decision to have an abortion is an excruciating one, but it is and should be the woman's decision. Neither church nor state should interfere.

She bolsters her opinion with compelling background. Thomas Aquinas, played with gusto by Eric Ray Anderson, is a super-sized sensualist who loves comfort, gluttonous meals and deep body massages. He also loves historical accuracy and provides some for Mitzi and the audience.

He reminds us of the manner in which church doctrine changes from generation to generation. "The embryo as a human from the moment of conception ... ludicrous! What ever happened to the concept of delayed ensoulment?" asks Aquinas.

He wants it understood that God only bestows souls on true humans. Aquinas himself presented this concept in 1312, he proudly tells Mitzi. That's why the Catholic Church refuses to baptize miscarriages. They haven't got a soul. According to Aquinas, a fetus isn't ready for a soul until quickening, and that doesn't come until nearly five months into the pregnancy. Where do modern clerics come up with their notions, he asks.

But church, state, parents, husband, friends bring no answers to Mitzi. She has to come to her own understanding and decision. Waiflike Sharia Pierce is astounding in depicting that process. With the bite of a lip, the lift of an eyebrow, a frown, a radiant smile or a slump of the shoulders she is able to convey the full array of Mitzi's emotions. Joy, confusion, anger, shock, fright, acceptance and grief all register with remarkable authenticity. She looks scarcely old enough or big enough to have a baby, certainly not mature enough to handle the enormous burden placed before her. Yet Pierce brilliantly carries it off.

The author's precise use of language is worth noting. She reminds us that our noun choices allow us to create reality. Mitzi talks about her "baby." The doctor and representative of the health insurance group calls the anencephalic being "it." The Expert talks about the "embryo" and "fetus." All are referring to the same creature. Each word carries its own weight, something we sometimes forget, though our political leaders and reformers know it all too well.

As noted earlier, the play is not without its problems. We're seeing a world première that ACT commissioned and nurtured. The theater's enthusiasm has caused it to bring the work to the stage before it's quite ready.

There are just too many unconnected or poorly integrated elements. What's Anderson Cooper doing here, either as broadcaster or homunculus? We all know mulch helps things grow, but the humorous interludes about a mulch delivery seem out of place. Why the importance of Mitzi's Esperanto classes vs. her religious classes? Is the author suggesting that a universal code is better than a single religious belief? It doesn't work. Even the role of Reckless Mary the Midwife seems weakly connected if not, indeed, superfluous.

Despite these weaknesses, the play addresses an explosive subject in judicious manner and injects moments of sparkling humor within its exploration of the heartwrenching topic. "You can't know what you'd do or who you are until you face the situation," says Mitzi. It's a lesson we should think about.

'Mitzi's Abortion' runs Tuesdays-Sundays through Aug. 20. ACT Theatre 700 Union St. Tickets from $10 to $54. 292-7676 or[[In-content Ad]]