George Street Playhouse presents world premiere of harrowing drama ‘Midwives’

Midwives review

PHOTOS BY T. CHARLES ERICKSON

Ellen McLaughlin, right, co-stars with Ryan George and Monique Robinson in “Midwives” at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick.

Sibyl Danforth is a midwife who has seen it all. Her clients may panic, but she looks them squarely in the eye and tells them everything is going to work out fine.

But as confident as she is, she can’t really guarantee that. And one night, a birth goes horrifically wrong, despite her best efforts.

That’s the premise of “Midwives,” a powerful new drama that the George Street Playhouse is presenting, in its world premiere, at the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center through Feb. 16. Directed in bold strokes by GSP artistic director David Saint, “Midwives” will keep you on the edge of your seat, especially in the first of its two acts, which is devoted entirely to that monumentally difficult birth. (The second act, in which we view the subsequent trial, is also very good, though not as pulse-pounding).

Chris Bohjalian wrote the script, adapting it from his best-selling 1997 novel of the same name (which was also adapted into a 2001 TV film starring Sissy Spacek). And Ellen McLaughlin is utterly convincing as Sibyl, the Earth Mother-like, take-charge midwife who tries to be heroic, but ends up being accused of a crime.

Was she really at fault, though, or just a victim of circumstances beyond her control? That’s one of the questions that Bohjalian — who builds in some uncertainty about what exactly happened that night – leaves open to interpretation.

The first act is set in a Vermont farmhouse, in 1985. Charlotte (Monique Robinson) is giving birth to her second child, with Sibyl’s help. Also present are Charlotte’s husband Asa (Ryan George), a minister; and Sibyl’s apprentice, Anne (Grace Experience).

There’s a possibility of an ice storm. Anne thinks they should have moved the birth to a hospital, since they might need to get there in the event of an emergency, and a storm could make transportation difficult or impossible. But Sibyl thinks that would be unnecessarily cautious. This is Vermont, after all; they deal with this kind of stuff all the time. And it’s very important to Charlotte that they do this at home, and not at a hospital.

From left, Molly Carden, Michael Cullen (top), John Bolger, Ellen McLaughlin, Lee Sellars and Armand Schultz in “Midwives.”

It’s not hard to predict in what direction this is all going. The birth does not go routinely. Sibyl has to make some hard choices. And we watch it all unfold, step by excruciating step, in Charlotte and Asa’s bedroom.

The second act feels, in a way, like a long denouement, with Sibyl put under the microscope. There’s some drama in the second act, too, with the trial hinging on a surprise twist (which, frankly, I found unbelievable). But after that harrowing, riveting first act, it feels anti-climactic.

Bohjalian’s female characters are more interesting than his male ones. Sibyl, Anne and Sibyl’s daughter Connie (Molly Carden), who serves as a kind of narrator, are the richest roles. Asa is an earnest, supportive character, which is understandable since he’s onstage, for the most part, only when his wife is giving birth, but there isn’t much to the role beyond that, and we never learn much about Charlotte, either. Sibyl’s husband Rand (John Bolger) is sweet and supportive and that’s about it. The remaining four roles are all minor, and just there to move the plot along: The judge and a testifying doctor (both played by Michael Cullen) and the opposing lawyers (played by Armand Schultz and Lee Sellars).

I couldn’t tell you if Bohjalian is pro- or anti-midwifery. Though “Midwives” examines the appeal of the practice as well as its drawbacks, he doesn’t really take a side in the debate.

The play also touches on the issues of sexism (with female midwives being looked down upon by the predominantly male medical community in this Vermont community) and racism (with Charlotte and Asa, who are African-American, having had a hard time being accepted in the mostly white community after Asa was transferred there). But these are tangential to Bohjalian’s main concern, which is to tell Sibyl’s heartbreaking story. And Bohjalian does that well enough to make “Midwives” a play I highly recommend.

The George Street Playhouse will present “Midwives” at the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center through Feb. 16. Visit georgestreetplayhouse.org.

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