Review: "Keely and Du" Presents a Different, Scarier Kind of Quarantine

 Keely and Du

Written by Jane Martin

Directed by Brandon Walker and Erin Cronican

Presented by The Seeing Place Theater

October 31-November 1, 2020 via Zoom and November 3-7, 2020 via YouTube

Audrey Heffernan Meyer (Du) and Erin Cronican (Keely). Credit: The Seeing Place
Beginning on the last day of Domestic Violence Awareness Month and extending through an election week that may have significant ramifications for women's health and reproductive rights (as well as the continued existence of the nation as a democracy) and that arrives hard on the heels of the installation of a Supreme Court justice hostile to these rights comes The Seeing Place Theater (TSP)'s reading of Keely and Du, a work that is deeply rooted in issues of women's bodily autonomy. This reading of (the pseudonymous) Jane Martin's Pulitzer Prize-nominated 1994 play about a pregnant woman kidnapped by a radical Christian anti-choice group continues TSP's its excellent "Body Politic" season and is part of its non-profit, social justice-oriented "Ripple for Change Series," with all of the proceeds benefiting Reproductive Health Services of Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region, the state's only remaining abortion provider. On Thursday, November 5, TSP will also host a talkback on "Action Steps for Protecting Women's Choices" with Dr. Colleen McNicholas, Chief Medical Officer of Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Regions and Southwest Missouri. This event is free, and you can register on TSP's website.
Brandon Walker (Walter), Erin Cronican (Keely), Audrey Heffernan Meyer (Du). Credit: The Seeing Place
Keely and Du comes with a content warning that it "deals seriously with the topics of abortion, secual assault, and kidnapping" and includes "some described violence that may be triggering for some audiences." When it begins, an unconscious Keely (Erin Cronican), who became pregnant following a sexual assault, is being moved into a Rhode Island basement where she will be held, handcuffed to a bed, under the watchful eye of a woman named Du (Audrey Heffernan Meyer) until it is too late for her to get an abortion. Du, a nurse, is a member of the anti-choice group "Operation Retrieval," and she reports to Walter (Brandon Walker), a pastor who checks in on the women periodically and does most of the arguing with Keely to try to convince her of the rightness of their actions in taking her into what he calls "protective custody." It is unfortunately unsurprising that it is a man who explains to Keely the "right" way to think about and experience her body, and one thing that it becomes clear over time that Keely and Du share, even if they perceive it differently, is the disproportionate effect on their lives of men, whether Du's father choosing the man with whom she will enter into an emotionally distant marriage or Keely's alcoholic husbandCole (Robin Friend) continuing to stalk her after their divorce. As Keely puts it, men have been acting on her behalf all her life; Walter just sits a bit farther towards one end of a continuum, and even Du eventually shows sporadic discomfort with how he interacts with Keely, but will it be enough to persuade her to come to help Keely? 

In some ways, Keely and Du is of its time, a period when the abortion conflict more regularly played out in public acts of violence than it does now, when creeping judicially enabled erosion of health and reproductive rights is the rule of the day. But the fundamental conflicts, and many of the specific anti-choice strategies and false talking points, remain the same, as we see, for example, in Walter's and Du's assertions that abortion regularly causes psychological issues and suicide. Besides that, there is a real danger that the play's climax, which hearkens back to an even earlier past, might again become America's future (just one reason that it is important to support organizations such as Planned Parenthood). The play also shows how the issue of abortion rights is embedded in larger social issues while presenting well drawn character studies of its central women without oversimplifying or sentimentalizing on either count (the final scene strongly hints, for instance, that Keely may not have entirely learned from past mistakes). 
Audrey Heffernan Meyer (Du), Erin Cronican (Keely), Brandon Walker (Walter), Robin Friend (Cole). Credit: The Seeing Place
The play's confinement primarily to one location is well suited both to the Zoom background feature and to imbuing the performance with some of the claustrophobia that Keely feels. Meyer's rendition of Du is sensitive and layered, Cronican's Keely is consistently compelling and she delves into traumas beyond her present situation, and Walker's Walter tellingly succumbs to flashes of anger that betray his desired self-presentation. As TSP has done with previous Zoom performances this season, the artists also participated in a post-show talkback, addressing questions about preparing for the role of Keely, the historical context of the play, performing on Zoom, and more.

Keely and Du is streaming on YouTube through November 7th: see it to benefit both yourself and a vital cause.

-John R. Ziegler and Leah Richards

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