Overpopulation may pose a dire threat to the planet, but how often does it factor in a woman’s decision about whether or not to have a baby? In Steven Somkin’s new play, “Melissa’s Choice,” a feminist Jewish attorney finds herself caught between her principles and her desire to procreate. Like Wendy Wasserstein’s 1988 play “The Heidi Chronicles,” but within a 21st-century framework, “Melissa’s Choice” centers on a woman who struggles to “have it all” — to be fulfilled in terms of her deepest yearnings and values. The play is running on Theatre Row in Midtown.
Directed by Mel Cobb, “Melissa’s Choice” is the story of Melissa Golden (Jessica DiGiovanni), an attractive 28-year-old champion of the environment and women’s rights, who goes on a camping trip with her boyfriend, Tad Schaefer (Ari Butler) in the Oregon woods. When Melissa tells Tad that she is pregnant, he urges her to have an abortion so that he can prioritize his own career as a professor of ecology. After Tad’s abrupt departure, Melissa calls her ex-boyfriend, Duncan Taffle (Jed Orlemann), a wealthy conservative lawyer, who opposes abortion and wants to marry her despite the fact that she is carrying another man’s child. Her unlikely mentors are Clyde Clark (Stephen Bradbury), a lustful retired cowboy, and Melba Abraham (Kim Sykes), a tough African-American forest ranger.
Somkin, who grew up in Croton-on-Hudson, spent a decade as a physician, and counseled pregnant girls at a clinic at Mount Sinai Hospital, until shifting gears and becoming a playwright. He has penned nine full-length plays, including “Chico Mendes Dead and Alive,” about the Brazilian environmentalist who was murdered by a rancher for his activism on behalf of rubber trees.
In an interview, Somkin told The Jewish Week that Melissa, who has survived her brother’s suicide and her own trauma of being date raped while in college, has “pushed away a lot of the pain in her character formation and is now reawakening to this through the agency of the pregnancy.”
Her ambivalence is reflected in frequent fantasy scenes that interrupt the action; in one daydream, Clyde masquerades as a rabbi in order to perform her marriage to Duncan.
As the son of an atheist, socialist father and a mother who was raised Orthodox, Somkin, who describes himself as “not religious in any sense,” has gone through his own journey to self-understanding and to an appreciation of his Jewish roots. Like his protagonist, “I grew up confused and had to work very hard both intellectually and emotionally to figure out who I am.”
“Melissa’s Choice” runs through May 22 at the Lion Theatre, 410 W. 42nd St. Performances are Tuesdays at 7 p.m., Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., Wednesdays at 2 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. For tickets, $18, call Telecharge at (212) 239-6200 or visit telecharge.com.