The four of us eagerly boarded the train to New York City on Saturday, February 1 in anticipation of our trip to see Midwives, the newly-adapted play based on Chris Bohjalian’s highly-acclaimed 1998 novel. Our little group consisted of my brother and sister-in-law, George and Joyce Aghjayan, my husband Ara and me. The trip would begin with the train ride to Penn Station followed by boarding New Jersey Transit headed to New Brunswick and the George Street Playhouse. With each step of the journey our excitement grew.
In preparation for the play, I decided to read the book, one of only a handful of the author’s that I had never read—imagine that, even though it was an Oprah’s Book Club pick and #1 NY Times bestseller! Suffice to say that as I made my way through the story, I understood the reason for its literary status. You will read in this issue of the Weekly that Bohjalian feels his writing works best when dread and heartbreak come together, and in Midwives this is very evident, soul-crushingly evident. I began to wonder how the events depicted in the novel would be brought to life on stage. Sadly, I must admit here that I also never saw the television movie based on the book. How were they going to handle the labor and birthing scene? How was the trial going to be treated? How was the daughter going to be portrayed, and at what stage in her life? So many questions led to even more eagerness to experience the drama on-stage.
Imagine our delight when we learned that the author himself had arranged to be at this performance, the very one we were attending! We already knew that Bohjalian’s talented daughter Grace Experience was the actress playing the role of the midwife’s apprentice, Anne Austin, in the production. As one who becomes completely engrossed in whatever novel I am reading, as well as what I’m watching in a theater, the knowledge of Bohjalian’s presence in the theater and Experience’s role in the play exponentially raised the level of my experience. I am the type of avid reader who loses herself in a novel, becomes joyful at a character’s happy experiences and tearful when sadness prevails. Likewise as a theater lover, my emotions abound in productions both dramatic and musical.
Midwives the play met and surpassed my expectations. The fact that the first act centers on the birthing scene and we could hear the words being spoken and see the action rather than reading recollections led to the emotions Bohjalian is so adept at creating: dread and heartbreak. Of course, I felt this in the pit of my stomach while reading the book, but seeing and experiencing it in live action brought the feeling to another level. The second act focused on the trial, also heartbreaking and ending with a classic Bohjalian twist, just as in the novel. I was pleased that the play was true to the novel, a benefit of Bohjalian being both a playwright and a novelist. Experience’s portrayal of Anne was outstanding, nuanced and emotional. In fact, every actor’s performance resulted in many emotional and surprised reactions from the audience, including our little group. Ellen McLaughlin and John Bolger as Sibyl and Rand Danforth, Ryan George and Monique Robinson as Asa and Charlotte Fugett Bedford, Armand Schultz as Bill Tanner, Lee Sellars as Stephen Hastings and Michael Cullen as both Dr. Terry Tierney and Judge Howard Dorset served as the ideal cast for this story, all bringing powerful and riveting performances that had us on the edge of our seats.
We were speechless at the very end of the play, but that quickly changed when we had the opportunity to talk with Bohjalian and Experience. It was an honor to be able to express our enjoyment of the play to them in person, and both were so gracious as always. I wondered whether Bohjalian preferred writing novels or plays and he enthusiastically responded, “I love both!” In his typically humble way, he gently reminded us that it takes an entire team to bring a play to life and that team makes it easier for him as writer. In the case of Midwives, that team created the ultimate Bohjalian emotional outcome: dread and heartbreak.