The house lights stay up for Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company's production of What I Thought I Knew. There's not much set besides a few props that Alice Eve Cohen (Kim Kivens) lugs onstage. She's here to get real with us.
Highland Park Community Center
Cohen was already an accomplished theater artist, specializing in solo performances, when she very unexpectedly began the confusing and scary journey that would inspire her acclaimed 2009 memoir and a 2013 play covering the same ground. MJTC's production of What I Thought I Knew marks the first time the show has been performed by an actor other than Cohen herself.
The subject of the story is a pregnancy that was supposed to be impossible. Cohen was told she could never have children, which proved true until her body proved physicians wrong — after 40-plus years of life, no less.
By the time Cohen realized that what she thought she knew about her own body was wrong, she was several months along and had been continuing to take hormone treatments that had affected the development of her fetus. What would have been a startling situation in any event became downright frightening as Cohen and her fiancé faced the myriad challenges that would confront them after they made it through a high-risk delivery.
What I Thought I Knew is Cohen's description of the thoughts that swirled through her head as she considered her options. Was abortion an option? Not in New York, but it might be elsewhere. Adoption? Her fiancé hated the idea. Could they financially afford the enormous expense of raising a child who needed constant medical treatment?
While Cohen's story is so unusual that she doesn't make any claim to represent the experiences of women more generally, nonetheless her experience throws the insanity of the American health care system into sharp relief. She also voices concerns and questions that many women must share, and that society doesn't want to hear. If you have conflicted feelings about your own pregnancy, does that mean you're a bad mother? Is there such a thing as "wrongful life"?
Under the direction of Jennie Ward, Cohen's story is in good hands with Kivens. The Highland Park Community Center doesn't draw the liveliest crowds in town, so it takes some resolution for Kivens to power forward with Cohen's provocative propositions, switching characters and occasionally breaking into sarcastic song and dance.
Kivens masters the play's mood swings and physically throws herself into the show, even when it demands that she swim like a fetus in the womb, or flop on a chair like an idle child. The performance sometimes, however, feels like a decathlon: Kivens dexterously handles all the demands of the piece, but doesn't always pause and take the beats needed to really make Cohen's lines connect.
Given that the production's most elaborate technical aspect is Anita Kelling's sound design — supplying effects and sometimes score — it was disappointing that, at least on Wednesday night, the sound was marred by inadequate volume and a persistent, distracting buzz from an overhead speaker.
Although it ends on a note of hope, What I Thought I Knew is not a reassuring story. At a time of renewed threats to women's reproductive freedom, a time when even our country's modest steps toward affordable health care are being walked back, the show is a sobering and thought-provoking experience.
Highland Park Community Center