Understanding and Forgiveness

This tale of a birth gone awry makes for a splendid play

Jonathan Franzen cringed when his novel The Corrections was selected for the Oprah Book Club in 2001. Franzen was distressed to have his work included among what he called the "schmaltzy, one-dimensional" novels that talk-show host Oprah Winfrey had previously pressed upon America's lonely housewives. Franzen admitted that Oprah also touted good books, presumably including his own, but the Oprah seal of approval has been more like a police do-not-cross tape for many of us self-styled serious readers.

So in 1997, when Chris Bohjalian's Midwives earned Oprah's benediction, I avoided it, never deigning to crane my neck to follow its rise on the best-seller list. I still don't know anything about the novel, except that Dana Yeaton has turned it into a splendid play now being presented by the UA's Arizona Repertory Theatre.

At the center of the story is the trial of Sybil Danforth, a lay midwife accused of killing one of her patients. The victim, Charlotte Bedford, had undergone a long, traumatic labor, and seemed to die, perhaps of a stroke, before the baby could be delivered. (A violent storm prevented Sybil and Charlotte's husband from taking Charlotte to a hospital.) Intending to save the baby, Sybil took the only sharp object at hand, a kitchen knife, and plunged it into Charlotte's belly, performing a crude but effective emergency Caesarian.

But what if Charlotte hadn't actually been dead before Sybil, unlicensed and unregulated, cut her open?

Midwives is billed as an open-minded debate about the safety of midwifery and the right of women to bypass the medical establishment and choose a less invasive, less expensive method of natural childbirth. But that isn't quite what Midwives turns out to be. It's clear that Sybil has spent many years as a caring, able, well-prepared and successful "baby catcher," always having an M.D. on call in case complications arose, and only in this one, horribly unusual case has anything gone wrong. Midwives hinges on a single, unusual event, and cannot stand as either a defense or indictment of midwifery in general.

But this is not a conventional courtroom drama, either. The nonlinear story also explores Sybil's relationship with her daughter, Connie, a medical student specializing in obstetrics. Is Connie's embrace of allopathic medicine a rejection of her mother's profession? Or is it true that, as she maintains, she merely wants to be available as backup for midwives like her mother? It's a complicated relationship, because Connie, as a teenager, seemingly was traumatized by the trial, although she denies it now--"now" being several years later, as Sybil, retired from midwifery, undergoes chemotherapy for a cancer that has stricken her before she's turned 50.

The two plot lines run concurrently, and also incorporate the action on the night of Charlotte's death. Overseeing it all is the ghost of the pregnant Charlotte, smiling benignly upon Sybil and Connie in the early scenes, and doubling as judge during the trial, while the attorneys stride up the theater's aisles to make their arguments to the jury-audience.

So playwright Yeaton has created a beautifully intricate structure that allows all elements of the story to develop simultaneously, not chronologically, yet without Tarantino-like narrative disruption.

Scenic designer Tara A. Houston keeps the various locales and levels of reality in front of us with minimal fuss, and director Richard Elliott supervises seamless transitions from present to past and even further into the past, rendering a script that depends on theatrical artifice into a performance that seems like an utterly natural way of storytelling, an examination of real people, not characters on a stage.

On opening night last week, Carley Preston's Sybil seemed a bit formal and distant in her early scenes, but before long, she was very much a calm and competent woman whose former confidence had been badly shaken--perhaps with justification, perhaps not. As Connie, Julia Graham was well attuned to her character, full of life and loving sass without overdoing it.

Petite, fragile and benevolent, Shawna Cormier made Charlotte a significant presence despite her paucity of lines. She was eye-catching in the chorus of Carousel earlier this season, creating a real character with nothing more than facial expression and general attitude, and that skill serves her well in Midwives. The rest of the cast maintained the standards set by the leads, especially Clay Froning and Dane Corrigan as the attorneys.

In the end, Sybil needs to take some advice she gives one of her patients early on: "Just relax and trust." And as she reminds Connie, "People can have different versions of an event without lying." Midwives isn't really about midwifery so much as it's a story about understanding and forgiveness, and it's a story told with craft and sensitivity.

If that's what makes it Oprah fodder, perhaps it's time to expand my reading list.