By Sarah Downs
Any woman will tell you, the prospect of going to the gynecologist doesn’t exactly give us a thrill. Even with the best of intentions, the experience can dehumanize, and at its worst can be excruciating. Behind the Sheet tells a story from the early days of gynecology, by which I mean the era of extraordinary ignorance, when the prevailing attitude was that to be a woman is to suffer; that somehow the pain of childbirth enhances its nobility, rendering it almost a sacrament. Womanhood is not for sissies.
Based loosely on the life of a real American doctor, Dr. J. Marion Sims, who basically performed medical experiments on female slaves in the 1840s, this absorbing play centers around a particularly debilitating complication arising from long, difficult child births. In telling this story, Charly Evon Simpson has crafted a drama without sensationalism. Given the unbelievable reality on which it is based, the restraint of both the writing and the intelligent, inventive direction by Colette Robert is near miraculous.
From the actors’ first gestures onstage, I was drawn in. The action begins in half-light. In the stillness, the five women central to the story perform a silent dance. The repetition of abstract gesture, eerily reminiscent of exercises at ballet barre is mesmerizing. The women are one; the women are puppets; the women are flesh; the women are images; the women are memory; the women are ghosts.
Their characters emerge from this dream dance to a harsh reality. A woman lies on a wooden table, in a spartan room with peeling walls and intermittent lighting. She has just undergone a surgery she doesn’t fully understand and is in enormous pain. Welcome to the ‘sick house’ operated by a surgeon who has bought these women specifically to give him, as their master, free access to their bodies. His goal? To make his name perfecting a technique of ‘fixing’ their ‘damaged’ organs. (After all, broken property serves no purpose.) The surgeon, George (Joel Ripka) operates again and again each woman, without anesthesia, growing increasingly frustrated at his repeated failures. Of course, in his solipsistic world, he sees it in terms of his own discomfort – his exhaustion, his anxiety, his fear – ignoring the physical and psychic pain he regularly inflicts on Dinah, Betty, Mary, Sally and Philomena.
The actresses portraying these slaves break your heart, inhabiting their characters to the extent you don’t ‘see’ the work. In their earth toned dresses by Sarah Woodham, petticoats swishing, they carry out their work when you cannot imagine how they put one foot in front of the other. Beautiful, sensitive Philomena (a luminous Naomi Lorrain), a woman who in another century would be a doctor herself, initially believes in her master’s work. She feels part of the team until she endures a painful loss of innocence as her difficult pregnancy moves her from standing beside the table to lying spread-eagle on top of it. Lorrain carries the show with a multi-dimensional performance that echoes even as you leave the theater. You can see why Lewis (Shawn Randall) falls in love with her. Randall projects such an earnest, unstudied sweetness it makes you melt.
Sally (Cristina Pitter) tries to keep spirits up with sardonic humor and spirit, in a creamy mezzo voice that projects confidence even at the worst moments. Pitter embraces the stage with every sly look. Nia Calloway gives Betty a bewildered delicacy, overwhelmed in this world of abuse. Mary (Amber Reauchean Williams) displays quiet strength and generosity, despite her pain. And Dinah (Jehan O. Young), the woman whose suffering we witness at the start of the play, is angry, vulnerable, wise and bitter by turns.
All of the actors hit their marks. Megan Tusing as George’s wife has a laser-like energy. She is small but mighty! As her husband, Joel Ripka maintains his humanity even as he digs into his character’s narcissism and enormous ego. This isn’t about women – white or black. This is about him. What’s a few nameless female slaves compared to the glory of success? With every incision he literally carves his name in history. The doctor’s offhand brutality is more horrifying for its lack of intention. It doesn’t occur to him to be cruel; he just is.
As to environment, the production design is a home run. You enter the theater and feel it as much as you see it. With a cloying haze blowing through the air, Fan Zhang and Adam Honoré, immerse the theater in sound and light, one moment flickering like gaslight, another booming like the fires of hell. The evocative set by he set by Lawrence E. Moten III is spare but comprehensive. Walls become windows; floors risk crumbling underfoot. All is decay.
The only complaint I have is that the pervasive haze throughout the show gets to be too much. It’s effective in setting the mood, but toward the end I began to feel as if I couldn’t breathe. Nevertheless, Behind the Sheet is not to be missed.
Behind the Sheet, by Charly Evon Simpson; directed by Colette Robert. With Stephen James Anthony, Nia Calloway, Naomi Lorrain, Cristina Pitter, Shawn Randall, Joel Ripka, Megan Tusing, Amber Reauchean Williams and Jehan O. Young. Lawrence E. Moton III, scenic design, Adam Honoré, lighting design; Sarah Woodham, costume design, Caitlin Murphy, properties; Fan Zhang, sound design; and Steven Brenman, technical direction.
Presented by: Ensemble Studio Theatre, 545 West 52nd St. Run time: 95 minutes with no intermission. Please note, synthetic haze is used in this production.