I recall my first visit to Stage Left Theatre: it was fall 1998, and I was a freshman at Albion College. Our Great Issues in Social Science class had been preparing for a field trip to the Windy City for several months, and a theatre outing was among many activities on the itinerary. When our original plans fell through at the last minute (some show at Steppenwolf), our professor discovered Stage Left’s production of The Waiting Room by Lisa Loomer. Without going into too much detail, the show was about women in different societies and the demands placed upon them. A powerful, wonderfully acted production — and my first Chicago storefront theatre experience. I still think about it.
So, over 11 years later, I find myself back at Stage Left to see another play about women in different societies. Here Where It’s Safe, a new play by M.E.H. Lewis, explores the issues of the surrogate mother industry in India, as told through the experience of Abbie and Zach — an American couple who believe they’ve exhausted all their options to become parents. You could say I’ve misinterpreted the focus, as the play wants you to care about Abbie and Zach’s struggle, however I found the second act, which delved into the societal pressures of Indian woman and the dynamics between Abbie and her surrogate mother Beena much more engaging than the by-the-book relationship of the loving and supportive (and boring) American couple. (Seriously – their love-at-first-sight story they keep talking about involves soup. SOUP. I don’t think I could come up with a less interesting love story if I tried.)
The surrogate mother industry is completely foreign to me. I found it both fascinating and disgusting. And it’s growing exponentially. As outlined in the dramaturgical notes, one agency in California reports that the number of referrals for Indian surrogates jumped from 22 in 2007 to 600 in 2009. There are many benefits, if you can call them that, for outsourcing your births to India: it’s cheaper, the quality is more consistent, and you feel like you’re giving these woman a chance – or so Abbie and Zach argue to their appalled, liberal lesbian friend, played with sardonic zest by Kate Black. “You’re colonizing their wombs!” she cries.
But Abbie and Zach go through with it.
However, Abbie (the effectively high-strung Cat Dean) is a control freak (and also a recovering Catholic – a plot line that never really fits the story, try as it may), and feels compelled to fly to India, abandoning her husband in the process, to live with her surrogate — rather than the hands-off approach the agency recommends. While there, she has a bit of an “Eat, Pray, Love” epiphany about what she wants and who she is, and she forges a connection with Beena (the radiant Mouzam Makkar, giving a beautifully measured performance). Meanwhile, the highly protective doctor (Anita Chandwaney) looms nearby.
Only when Abbie begs Zach to come out and support her in India does the plot takes a nose dive, dissolving into yelling and, dare I say it, emotional dishonesty. In an effort by Lewis to tie things up (quite literally) in a happy, red bow, the show comes off as a bit insulting and made me slightly dislike the smug American couple. (In explaining my reasoning here, please note: spoilers in the next paragraph!)
I empathized with Beena and her situation. But instead she ends up consoling the neurotic new parents -– only moments after giving birth – with stories and songs, nearly supporting the age-old stereotype of “the magical foreigner.” When Abbie makes a half-hearted promise to help Beena emigrate to America, Beena politely declines, resigning herself to a sad life with an abusive husband -– a husband who forced Beena to have the baby prematurely due to some sort of unclear encounter with him. And, in response, Abbie and Zach just shrug and smile. And you are supposed to care for this couple?
(End of spoilers.)
That aside, the story is mostly touching and poignant, exploring a subject matter that’s both shocking and intriguing. The physical production is also impressive, with William Anderson transforming Stage Left’s space (a space they will be moving out of following this production to begin their next season at Theatre Wit) into a den in India. But the off-putting ending left me with a bitter taste in my mouth that still lingers.
Here Where It’s Safe plays through April 3 at Stage Left Theatre. For more information, visit stagelefttheatre.com.