Written by Jessica Bashline
Directed by Melissa Crespo
Presented by Strange Sun Theater at the WP Theater, NYC
January 19-February 2, 2019
January 19th witnessed the third annual day of Women's Marches throughout and beyond the United States. The same day saw the opening of Strange Sun Theater's production of Wickedest Woman, a play that reminds us why actions such as these marches continue to be necessary while it highlights the life of a woman who made significant contributions to women's health, particularly in New York City, in the 19th century. The engrossing Wickedest Woman is based on the true story of the rise and persecution of Ann Trow Lohman, the titular "Wickedest Woman in New York," according to her opponents; and playwright Jessica Bashline's presentation of Lohman's decades-long career as a midwife and contraception, adoption, and abortion provider suggests that draconian restrictions around sexuality and reproductive health are as much about broader questions of power as they are about the morality that they employ as a shield.
After some framing that includes the assertion that a woman must, presumably like Lady Macbeth, un-sex herself in order to perform an abortion, the play shows us a 16 year-old Ann (Jessica O'Hara-Baker) whose impoverished mother (Jasmin Walker) has just discovered, to her dismay, that she is pregnant again. While her mother wants more for Ann than domestic duties and a family that she cannot afford to feed, Ann herself is soon enough headed from her native England to America as a wife and mother. After the loss of her tailor husband Henry Sommers (Evan Daves) leaves Ann and her infant daughter Caroline at loose ends, a chance conversation with a Dr. Evans (Dawn McGee) results in her becoming what amounts to his apprentice and sets her on a path that will both being her great personal and professional success and put her on a collision course with ideological enemies and tightening legal restrictions on not only abortion (legal until 1867 before what was termed "the quickening," when the woman could feel the fetus move, typically around four months) but also and even on matters such as the distribution of medical literature depicting the female anatomy (the movement of the line for what the characters consider "impossible" constitutes a sharp reminder for contemporary audiences, should they need one, of how changes in social norms are not always progressive, as does the complicity of the press). Another chance conversation leads to her second marriage, to fellow immigrant Charles Lohman (Jose-Maria Aguila), who pushes her to start her own practice and to adopt the pseudonym Madame Restell for marketing purposes. Charles becomes Ann's steadfast partner in business and in life, supporting her through not only her legal conflicts but also a falling out with Caroline (Emily Gardner Xu Hall) that echoes Ann's with her own mother.
Wickedest Woman deftly strikes these sorts of balances, whether it be in depicting Ann's personal and professional triumphs and struggles or demonstrating the relationship of her individual story to larger social currents. One might also detect a parallel between the repetitions in the stories of Ann, her mother, and her daughter and the cyclical elements of criminalizing women's health. For example, the newly-formed American Medical Association's role in criminalizing abortion represents part of a broader power grab by male physicians against midwives using basically the same strategy that in earlier centuries would have included accusations of witchcraft. As Ann angrily instructs Caroline, life is a continuous fight rather than some singular event followed by unchanging and unchallenged ease. Ann's admonishment in that moment is part of yet another balance, one which ensures that she remains a complex character rather than a symbol or a saint; her stubborn streak, for instance, serves her better in her vocation than in attempting to control Caroline.
The production is replete with great details, from gender-blind doubling of the cast, to the semi-impressionistic set with its motifs of cubbyholes and round or rounded openings, the mix of accents in the play's NYC, and the effective snatches of traditional songs. A production of a biographical play is only as strong as the performer playing its protagonist, and O'Hara-Baker is superb. Her complex, deeply human, and dignified portrayal of Ann is enthralling right through its moving conclusion. Aguila's Charles is charming, strong-willed, and caring, while Gardner Xu Hall affectingly embodies the tensions between Caroline's desire for self-determination and love for her mother. The rest of the cast brings strong performances to a range of roles, with McGee notably generating some of the biggest laughs in comic relief parts before pivoting to an emotional turn in the late-stage trial scene (which, significantly, finds everyone except Ann extremely reluctant to speak plainly).
A decade before Ann Lohman's death, Horatio Alger, Jr. found enormous success writing rags-to-riches novels centered on young males. Change the protagonist to a woman, however, and her work to women's health, and the public was less enamoured, especially when the story was a true one. Ann, in Wickedest Woman, not only courageously continues to practice even though she knows that the "tide is turning" but equally bravely refuses to allow her story to be reduced to its ending. This is one time that seeing the doctor is something to look forward to. - Leah Richards & John Ziegler