They're in Deep

Megan is a New York actress who, in addition to not having worked in six months, discovers that she has an overwhelming need "to love and be loved." Past her ingenue days but not yet matronly enough for prime time, the former Broadway performer must decide whether to take a $15,000-plus offer to film a commercial for a pro-life group called Life Force. Haunted by her own memories of having an abortion when she was sixteen, buffeted by her roommate's pro-choice arguments and blinded by her romantic attraction for Life Force's handsome leader, the conflicted Megan soon finds herself floundering about in a maelstrom of emotion-charged rhetoric.

That's also how most audience members are likely to feel during The Water Children -- whether it's a sign of the play's sly effectiveness or its glaring shortcomings. Wendy MacLeod's 1997 drama, which is being given its regional premiere by the Bug Theatre Company, mixes pointed, sometimes vehement discussions about abortion with tangential and often perplexing comments about racism, the National Endowment for the Arts, divorce as a family value, the purity of social activists' motives and even the blubbery pronouncements of Jesse Helms, eventually taking on more muddy water than its characters are capable of bailing.

But on the strength of several solid performances, as well as MacLeod's occasional ability to punctuate her vociferous prattle with wickedly comic remarks, the Bug's production proves intriguing. Ably directed by Donna Morrison and performed against an ever-shifting, tasteful backdrop of Japanese screens and utilitarian furniture (Amanda Kay Berg designed the setting), the 85-minute production employs a variety of nonrealistic effects that help to soften the playwright's frank examination of tender issues.

In fact, those scenes that traverse accepted boundaries of space and time reveal each character's desires and fears more effectively than do episodes of bare-fisted dialogue. Arguments about whether to adopt or abort are easier to contemplate when, for instance, Megan engages in an off-the-cuff conversation with her cat (played in full cat costume by another actress) about whether the couch-lounging feline ought to take her newborn kittens to the ASPCA.

While some of the supporting players render portraits that verge on grotesque caricature, the leading actors adapt to the disjointed drama without coloring it through self-conscious commentary. McPherson Horle makes an appealing Megan, exuding both ambivalence and charisma as she backs out of one fray only to plunge headfirst into another. On stage for what seems like the entire drama, Horle never gets hung up on the enormity of her role, choosing instead to play each scene for what it's worth and then artfully moving on to the next. Her assured, confident presence persuades us to see events from her perspective even as we witness the many peripheral incidents (such as a pilgrimage to Japan to visit the shrine that references the play's title) that influence her from without.

As Megan's love interest, Chris Reid does what he can to make the character of Randall both credible and attractive, adequately demonstrating why the strong-willed Megan would consider having a child with a man whose outlook on family life doesn't necessarily fall in line with hers. Oddly enough, some of Reid's best moments occur during a scene with Megan's roommate, Liz, splendidly portrayed by newcomer Laura Schneider. Flaunting his ability to fertilize an egg in an all-natural way, Randall, a proud West Virginia native, hammers home a couple of points about a gay woman's reproductive choices before the phlegmatic Liz icily responds, "Better my DNA [in a test tube] than your missing-chromosome hillbilly genes."

Feloniz Salas is chillingly convincing as Crystal, an ardent Life Force follower who is devoted to the group because, she says, her life was saved in infancy by a hospital worker who plucked her from an operating-room waste bucket. "This is like a family to me," she says of Randall and his crew, while holding aloft a bracelet dangling with baubles that serve as daily reminders of aborted fetuses. Matthew Schultz plays Chance, the child that Megan never had, with unforced charm. Brian Upton deftly takes on multiple roles -- that of film director, flamboyant hairdresser, ber-chic waiter and Buddhist priest -- as does Elena Lawrence, who portrays Megan's mother, cat and agent (the latter, unfortunately, with a lame New York dialect). And while he pushes his character's zealousness well beyond the point of terroristic fanaticism, David Loda is indeed scary and single-minded as a Life Force true believer with a twisted "respect" for life.

To be sure, a couple of scenes would benefit from a more lyrical approach, especially the final meeting between Megan and Chance, which seems to get swept along by the show's predominantly brisk rhythms instead of unfolding with mystery and wonderment. And some episodes, such as Randall's impromptu lecture about abortion that drags on even as he insists he has to take an emergency phone call (which he never does), strain credulity. However strange MacLeod's (dis)arrangement of events might appear, Morrison and company manage to lend some otherworldly qualities to the playwright's dogmatic pileup.The Water Children, through March 11 at the Bug Performance and Media Art Center, 3654 Navajo Street, 303-477-9984.

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Jim Lillie

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