The Unicorn Theatre's production of Keely and Du has brightened Kansas City's summer stage season with a most provocative drama.  Cynthia Levin capably directs a talented ensemble which brings Jane Martin's morality play to audiences that, judging from the performance I attended, welcomed a chance to be informed, moved, and challenged.  The Kansas City Star promised its readers that this play would present both sides of the abortion issue fairly.  

The story concerns a Cincinnati woman (Keely), raped by her ex-husband.  On her way to have an abortion she is kidnapped, brought to Providence, Rhode Island, locked in a cellar, and chained to a bed, where she receives "care" from a grandmotherly nurse (Du), and "instruction" from a pro-life extremist.

On the scale of sheer drama, the actors have a tiger by the tail, and draw the audience into the horror and the hope of what is for some a nightmare and for others a dream come true.  Kathleen Warfel, playing the pregnant Keely, gives more evidence that she is Kansas City's finest actress.

As a Catholic priest, I approached the play with some apprehension.  My church is well known for its opposition to abortion.  And as a pastor, I have heard the hurts of many families torn by the difficult decisions they face in a world where idealized relationships crumble beneath bad decisions, victimization, and the convenient solution that abortion offers.  

The Catholic Church's position on abortion is precisely refined, but still controversial.  It appeals to the value of human life.  Controversy lies in its opinion that human life begins at conception, and that any direct attack on that life, regardless of the circumstances surrounding its conception, constitutes a moral evil.  In the case of Keely, this position would support the opinion (but not the behavior) of her captors--the child has a right to live, even if the child was conceived by rape.  But your typical midwesterner will probably sympathize with this pregnant victim.  Many good church-going folks believe circumstances do change the morality of the action.  They think abortion should be permitted in cases of rape or if they would save the life of the mother.  That's where controversy lies.

But this play, although it purports to show "both sides" of the abortion issue, actually shows only two sides--there are many more.

There shouldn't be any discussion about the particular issue at hand.  Kidnapping women is wrong.  Handcuffing women is wrong.  Making light of rape is wrong.  Anyone who does commits crime, and deserves the rebuke of church and state.

Pro-lifers who bomb abortion clinics, shoot abortion doctors, and embarrass, hurt, or degrade women make a mockery of the term "pro-life."  They are dangerous, and society must protect itself from them.

Is the playwright presenting this position as one of "two sides" of the abortion issue deserving fair assessment?  If so, she does society a great disservice.  Keely and Du is not about the subtleties of the abortion issue.  It's about the extremities of the issue.  If "presenting both sides" means showing a) the belief that abortion after rape is justifiable, vs. b) the belief that women may be kidnapped--just what kind of debate are we watching here?

If society understands the pro-life position as a call to terrorism, the pro-life movement has failed.

The truth is far more subtle.  There are more positions than Keely and Du know about.

For example, suppose human life does begin at conception.  Suppose the fetus has all the civil and human rights of any other person.  Can a battered pregnant woman who aborts after an attack press murder charges?

Or, take a more calm situation.  Suppose the woman in question is a wife and mother of two children in a happy family.  She discovers she's pregnant.  At first she's pleased, but along about the sixth month, and after discussion with her husband, they decide that they can provide a more profitable economic base for themselves and a more acceptable social position if they limit their family to two children.  So, for the sake of convenience, peer pressure, and profit, they both choose abortion.  Are these family values right or wrong?

Although this scenario is not as theatre-friendly as a kidnapping, it's far more common.

Hats off to the Unicorn for provocative theatre.  Hats back on if they think they've shown both sides of the abortion issue.  This plot is too limiting.  To their credit, they gave us a two-hour meditation on the dilemma of abortion.  How often do any of us sit still and listen to two sides of an issue for that length of time?  Too often the theatre and cinema invite us to escape moral dilemmas rather than face them.

The audience that joined me for Keely and Du clearly appreciated the opportunity to sit before the mystery of human life and death, the quandary of moral decision-making, the dignity of women, and the impotence of religions.  We applauded an ambiguity--a paralyzing desire to love and to care for those in distress, whether they are victims of crime, innocents aborted, or well-meaning but misguided spiritualists.  We applauded the human condition, which knows more about the awesome fear of spirituality than about what to do with it.

This article first appeared in The Kansas City Star in June, 1994.

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