Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly reported that the the Infinite Abyss company changed the age of the lead character in Mitzi's Abortion. New Times regrets the error.
A reputation of controversy precedes Mitzi's Abortion, a Seattle black box hit in 2006 that deals directly with late-term abortion. But don't expect sign-wielding pickets outside Empire Stage during its short run at the Fort Lauderdale theater. Although it's a deeply affecting work, Mitzi's Abortion is hardly controversial; rather, it's disappointingly safe.
Lead character Mitzi has chosen to follow through with her pregnancy where others might abort out of convenience or concern for cost. This decision comes despite a low-paying job at Subway and a Middle East deployment for the child's father, a man she met at Gameworks and barely knows. The 22-year-old changes her mind only when she learns that the fetus would be brain-dead upon arrival, with no hope for the most incremental recovery.
For expectant mothers in this situation, the choice is clear: Termination is the vastly preferred medical solution to ease the suffering of the fetus as much as its carrier. There's really no dilemma here. If Mitzi's Abortion were a bolder play — if it really wanted to spark debate — Mitzi would consider aborting a healthy child, asserting freedom of choice even if it polarizes half the audience. It might make some rethink their preconceptions, which is partly what art and theater are all about.
But enough about what Mitzi's Abortion could have been. As a work of drama, staged here by the the Infinite Abyss company, it's a moving show, one that still manages to address the thorny religious, political, personal, and bureaucratic entanglements that arise with abortion. Playwright Elizabeth Heffron avoids snap judgments of her characters, rightly situating most of them in a moral gray area while reserving her ire for our broken health-care system and the soulless insurance providers who force Mitzi to pay for the $10,000 abortion.
As Mitzi, Shelby Steel channels her character's conflicting emotions — the sudden desire to remove a deformity she has completely fallen in love with over half a year — with depth and conviction. She's paired well with Ravi David Smith as her physically and emotionally distant boyfriend, Chuck, and together they represent an archetypal lower-income couple. As Mitzi's problems worsen, their increasingly disconnected conversations suggest chasms of pain between them.
Kitt Marsh and Dominick Daniel provide stalwart performances as Mitzi's parents, the latter doing effective double duty as Mitzi's low-key doctor, but most of the supporting cast is on shakier ground. Opening night saw an unacceptable number of mangled lines from just about everybody, but the weakest link was Blaze Powers, struggling stiffly as Mitzi's friend Tammy. We're supposed to believe that she's in a lesbian relationship with left-wing firebrand Nita (Monica Garcia), but this is so unconvincing that it may as well be nonexistent. It's as if director Jeff Holmes, who handled most of this material with sensitivity and authenticity, took his lunch break during rehearsals for Powers and Garcia.
Mitzi's Abortion is least successful when it diverges into metaphysical communication, in the form of St. Thomas Aquinas (David Tarryn-Grae), rebranded as a gay gym rat; and Reckless Mary (Phyllis Spear), a soot-covered heretic from centuries past. They offer occasional insight to Mitzi, but their unwelcome comic relief only distracts from the story's poignant heart.
Catholics may be offended by the play's presentation of St. Thomas as an Anderson Cooper-worshiping queen with a penchant for vibrating recliners. But even this comes across as a gentle irreverence, and the church's rigid anti-abortion policies are given a pass in a later scene when St. Thomas suggests that Mitzi may still enter heaven if she goes through with the operation. Controversial? Not really.