"Watermelon Hill" was a cruel euphemism for the Catholic Infant Home, a proper name that was a different sort of euphemism for the facility where unwed mothers went in mid-century St. Paul to wait out their final months of pregnancy. Babies, once delivered, were expected to be given up for adoption.
Lily Baber Coyle's Watermelon Hill premiered in 2001 at the History Theatre, which has revived it for a new production under the direction of Anya Kremenetsky, providing a welcome opportunity to enjoy this provocative, moving script inspired by Linda Back McKay's book Shadow Mothers. Though Watermelon Hill tells a fictional story, McKay's tenacity in the face of a real-life atrocity — she was sent in disgrace to the Catholic Infant Home as a teenager, with a pregnancy resulting from a rape — underpins Coyle's thoughtful, wry, and surprisingly amusing play.
The heart of Watermelon Hill is the growing rapport among three women who arrive at the home sharing a due date and little else. Emily Gunyou Halaas gets the best lines as the cynical Joan, a dry foil to Aeysha Kinnunen's wide-eyed farm girl Leah and Adelin Phelps' spirited but naive Sharon.
Coyle's sharp wit enlivens her relentless jabs at the society that made Watermelon Hill feel like a necessary evil. To mock perceptions that babies that come from checkered backgrounds were less likely to go to prosperous homes, Coyle has Joan insinuate that she's been impregnated by a Kennedy. Halaas' impeccable comic timing makes the moment very funny.
The wit returns when Leah tells her boyfriend she's pregnant. Coyle presents the scene as a fantasy where the gender roles are reversed. That gets a big initial laugh, but Kinnunen and actor Sean Dillon stay focused on the lives at stake, and the scene plays out as a cutting commentary on a double standard.
The show is full of such scenes, leaning heavily on Kathy Maxwell's lighting to help us keep our bearings amid fantasies, flashbacks, and flash-forwards. Rick Polenek's set is spare and flexible, with three tall doors used to great effect in suggesting the weight of institutionalized sexism looming over these three young women.
Reminding new audiences of the savage injustices that inspired this play and remain sadly relevant today is a worthy enough achievement, but Watermelon Hill goes further, evoking particular and nuanced lives. The show gives us characters who aren't defined by their shared circumstance, but who are indelibly affected by it.
IF YOU GO:
30 E. 10th St., St. Paul
Through April 10; 651-292-4323