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A CurtainUp DC DC Logo Review

Get me the sharpest knife in the house.
---Sybil Danforth

Round House Theatre is presenting an intense look at a mother-daughter relationship which has been affected by tragedy. Midwives is the compelling adaptation of Chris Bohjalian's highly successful novel of the same name and Dana Yeaton's play, like the novel, is about a midwife involved in a mother's death during a difficult delivery.

Stranded in a rural country home, in the backwoods of Vermont during an ice storm, Sybil Danforth made a split second decision that affected everyone involved with the tragic birth. But even as her smiling outer self carried on, Sybil's inner spirit curled up and died along with the young mother.

Professionally and emotionally, the guilt of Charlotte Bedford's death has created a void in her life for eleven years. And now, as she battles cancer, her daughter arrives determined to bring closure to the experience that has haunted the two of them for over a decade.

Mr. Yeaton has created an interesting piece in that he goes at the family relationship via the other players in the story. Thus it is through reliving the memory of the death and the subsequent trial that Sybil is forced to see her responsibility, not so much in Charlotte's death, but in how she has chosen to live her life since that night. Subsequently, there are various storylines unfolding on stage, which keeps the piece moving at a fairly fast pace. In addition, Mr. Yeaton infuses gentle humor into his examination of the aftermath of the birth and its effect on Sybil and her daughter Connie.

Director Mark Ramont allows his cast to travel this story in a relaxed manner so that the small town feeling of the New England community is achieved. It makes the birth scene that much more disturbing as you see the otherwise implacable Sybil use all of her knowledge and skill to try saving Charlotte and the baby.

Set designer James Kronzer's interesting stage symbolizes the barrenness that has framed and slowly crept into the baby catcher's life as a result of that bleak night. His ice covered trees and branches highlight the ghosts who haunt the two Danforth women to great effect. Matthew Richards' lighting builds upon Kronzer's set in a visually surprising way that is quite delightful.

Alma Cuervo takes us on a touching journey as Sybil Danforth. A former hippie who became a midwife and alternative medicine advocate, she strikes a nice balance of outer strength, humor and resignation that is hiding emotional turmoil. Almost pathological in her unspoken desire to be found guilty for a crime that she may not have committed, you realize she has tried herself on a daily basis.

At the outset of the play, she even talks with the dead Charlotte -- because she has never let the dead woman, or herself, rest in peace. In an interesting way, the entire production seems like a subconscious dialogue, almost like an inner dream sequence, which is being played out before us. Thus it makes sense that while Sybil is, on one level, talking with her daughter, on another she is asking Charlotte why she held back on important medical information that could have been important for Sybil to know. It's as if Sybil is emerging from emotional shock, reclaiming her own memories of the incident, piecing them together and finally realizing that she has been much too harsh on herself. It's time to allow herself to let this whole experience and period of her life go.

As Charlotte, Kimberly Parker Green exudes an eerie presence on the stage dressed in a blood stained nightgown and moving from victim to judge to advocate on Charlotte's behalf. Portraying Connie, Stephanie Burden skips from 12 year old to 22 year old with great ease, while also giving the sense that she is a daughter determined to make Sybil see her own true worth, not just as a baby catcher, but as a mother.

Filling out the cast, Paul Morella creates wonderfully sinister attorney Bill Tanner. Lynn Steinmetz is cantankerous nurse Louise. Rana Kay, the nebbish and frightened apprentice midwife, Anne Austin. And John Dow is good friend Barton Hewitt, while John Lescault's defense attorney Stephen Hastings is a pillar of patience in dealing with Sybil. As Asa Bedford, Charlotte's husband, Gene Gillette is touching and sympathetic, even when he is being dishonest on the witness stand.

If you look at Midwives as happening in a physical reality, then there are key pieces of information missing. While the play is emotionally intense and compelling to watch, one wishes there had been a bit more story development to flesh out the mother-daughter relationship, since it is the primary plot focus. Having never read the novel, I have no idea if Mr. Bohjalian included the information which would have been useful to deepen the character development. Mr. Yeaton never mentions what kind of cancer Sybil is fighting, if she is divorced or widowed, or how she and Connie lived their lives after the trial acquitted the "baby catcher" of wrongdoing. While Connie keeps saying there is an issue, the audience is required to take this fact on faith, since it seems that, to a great extent, Sybil and her daughter get along very well. Additionally, the play ends somewhat anti-climatically, because we've ridden an emotional roller coaster that suddenly is wrapped up in a few minutes.

But if you view Midwives from a symbolic perspective, in that it is a subconscious dialogue happening in Sybil's mind, the play becomes much more enlivening and the missing pieces unnecessary. From this perspective Sybil is a woman facing her own mortality, and coming to terms with her life. Charlotte represents impending death, Sybil is the voice of fear, and Connie is the voice of inner strength urging Sybil to let go of her guilt. The journal represents Sybil's forgotten memories, which she has been afraid to face. The action on stage is the inner turmoil happening within Sybil's subconscious, which finally melds the two warring sides of her psyche (Sybil and Connie). This inner acceptance in turn brings forth the missing memories, thus allowing the baby catcher to vanquish her own deadening guilt and find the strength to say goodbye to Charlotte (death) and embrace life and living.

No matter how you view Midwives it's definitely worth a visit to Round House's Bethesda stage!

by Dana Yeaton adapted from the novel by Chris Bohjalian
Directed by Mark Ramont
with Alma Cuervo, Kimberly Parker Green, Stephanie Burden, Paul Morella, Lynn Steinmetz, Rana Kay, Gene Gillette, John Lescault, John Dow
Set Design: James Kronzer
Costume Design: Anne M. Kennedy
Lighting Design: Matthew Richards
Sound Design: Martin Desjardins
Running Time: 1 hour and 30 minutes with 1 intermission
Round House Theatre Bethesda, 4545 East-West Highway, Bethesda, MD
Telephone: 240-644-1100
WED @7:30, THU - SAT @8, Sat - SUN @3; $25 - $50
Opening 02/01/06, closing 02/26/06
Reviewed by Rich See based on 02/06/06 performance

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