Oprah Winfrey put author Chris Bohjalian on the map when she selected his novel Midwives as an early entry for her popular book club series. The story of a birth gone disastrously wrong in rural Vermont sold millions of copies and spawned a successful television movie starring Sissy Spacek. Bohjalian has now furnished a stage adaptation, which receives its world premiere at George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Forgive me for suggesting that a book-club discussion might be more lively.
Where time stops
George Street spared no expense putting this production on its feet—it boasts a sterling set by Shoko Kambara that creates a simultaneously realistic yet ethereal atmosphere, aided by David Lander’s pale-blue lighting. The design elements produce a sense of time stopping, as it often does on a snowy New England winter night. Such a night is at the root of the story, which follows midwife Sibyl Danforth (Ellen McLaughlin) through an event that turns tragic—and potentially preventable.
After that night
Bohjalian bisects the story into two discrete sections: the first act dramatizes Sibyl’s attempt to deliver the second child of Asa and Charlotte Bedford (Ryan George and Monique Robinson), a minister and his wife who’ve recently moved to Vermont from Alabama. The second act finds Sibyl on trial for involuntary murder, charged after Charlotte died during an emergency Caesarean section. At various points, Sibyl’s daughter Connie (Molly Carden) acts as narrator, filling in missing details and offering her perspective.
Part courtroom thriller and part character study, the proceedings don’t lack for dramatic potential. Yet in this stage script, Bohjalian seems unable to tie the inciting event and its aftermath into a cohesive whole. At times, it feels like he’s written two separate plays and awkwardly pushed them together, without much thought given to how the actions of the first half ushered in the consequences of the second. Director David Saint’s static staging does little to help matters, as scenes end abruptly and zap any rising tension.
As a writer, Bohjalian also leaves key elements of his story unexplored. Asa and Charlotte, who came to Vermont to pastor at a local church, are among the few Black faces in an overwhelmingly white town. Some dialogue hints at their feeling less than welcome, and the trial sequence indirectly introduces race as a potential mitigating factor for Sibyl’s malfeasance. Yet when it comes to exploring a sense of otherness and exclusion experienced by people of color in majority-white spaces, Bohjalian largely punts.
Although Connie guides the audience through most of the story—and Carden stands out among the cast in projecting her ease on stage—Sibyl’s home life remains mostly undefined. (John Bolger appears as her sympathetic husband, but the character often seems like an afterthought.) We meet Connie as she begins a career in obstetrics and gynecology, and her decision to enter the medical field warrants more attention that it gets, especially given Sibyl’s vocal distrust of hospital births.
I haven’t read the source novel—perhaps it fills in the details that the play lacks, as a work of long-form fiction sometimes can. As cold nights like the one at the center of this story lay ahead, I won’t judge you if you decide to just stay home with the book.
Know before you go: Midwives features a graphic depiction of childbirth.
What, When, Where
Midwives. By Chris Bohjalian. Directed by David Saint. Through February 16, 2020, at George Street Playhouse, 11 Livingston Ave., New Brunswick, NJ. (732) 246-7717 or georgestreetplayhouse.org.
George Street Playhouse offers barrier-free access for patrons of all abilities. Assistive-listening devices and large-print/Braille programs are available at all performances. There will be an audio-described performance of Midwives on February 6 (8pm) and an open-captioned performance on February 8 (2pm).