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The Pill...Non "Mother's Little Helper"

a simple reminder of the focus of the topic of the play

I’m George Walker for WFIU Arts

The Pill at Indianapolis’s Phoenix Theatre is an energetic and spirited retelling of Margaret Sanger’s struggles for birth control culminating with the introduction of Enovid in 1960. Tom Horan’s script directed by Bill Simmons dramatically presents the main characters with all their quirks and the at times frustrating and at times exhilarating struggle.

Constance Macy whom Bloomington theatregoers may remember as Nurse Rached in a recent production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is the doughty Margaret Sanger. Her Margaret is a passionate warrior. When we meet her in the 1950s, she’s been in the trenches to let women have control their bodies since her nursing days during the First World War. It’s clearly taken a toll, but in Macy’s hands, she’s always rallying for another martini and another part of the battle.

Sanger was ably abetted by the wealthy Katherine McCormick, Jam Lucas, the heir of the farm machinery family. They’re clearly sisters in the fight, respecting one another and at the same time egging one another on. The scenes with the two playing off one another were richly evocative, a real treat for the audience.

Arianne Villareal appears as the Dr. Pincus…a hyperactive driven idea person and researcher. Pincus regards everything from medicine to driving to finding subjects as personal  life evolving challenges. While Sanger has been frustrated with the mechanics of illegal birth control barriers like diaphragms and condoms, she’s been hoping beyond hope for something simple…a magic pill. It’s Pincus who comes up with the idea of a hormone that mimics pregnancy and prevents fertilization.

To add a certain respectability and class to the project’s team, Sanger and McCormick recruit the Harvard trained Dr. John Rock, played pipe in hand by Jen Johansen. Yes, it’s an all-woman cast. There are trails and trails, but the basic problem of prescribing a pill to healthy women that may lead to unpleasant side effects is hard to overcome. First trails are abandoned. A trail in Puerto Rico where birth control is legal has problems as well.

Throughout Sanger is driven by pathetic letters from Sadie Sachs, delivered with increasing energy by Jenni White. Sadie pleads for help in a situation with a demanding husband, too little money, too many children, health problems for all and a couple of self-abortion attempts. Sanger recounts these and seems driven by them, though she later confesses that there were real letters, but in a moment of candor, that Sadie’s were made up.

To the rescue with the second of his brilliant ideas comes Dr. Pincus…prescribe the pill as a means to regulate women’s often erratic menstrual cycles. As such, Dr. Rock and others are given the opportunity to solve a common clinical problem and the drug companies are allowed a solid basis for extensive production and even advertising. Enovid comes on the market in 1960 and there are celebrations. More widespread use and slight changes in the formulas follow. Sanger died in 1966.

The Phoenix Theatre’s production is a lively one with plenty of movement in what could be a dry documentary. The all-female cast does a fine job with Jen Johnansen as a quite manly Dr. Rock and Arianne Villareal as a more teen aged Dr. Pinchus.  The opposition from male politicians, religious leaders and the public is represented only with reports.

The pill has been called the most important development of the 20th century, vying with the atomic bomb. Both have certainly had their effects, though Loretta Lynn’s country hit in 1975 was the only one that made the charts

The Phoenix Theatre’s production of Tom Horan’s The Pill plays through June 10 in their intimate Basile Theatre.

You can find this and other reviews and interviews at WFIU dot ORG/ARTS

At the theatre for you, I’m George Walker

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