By Jenn McKee
You know you’re watching an intense play when an on-stage moment involving a woman biting a man’s hand makes you want to pump your fist in the air, and when the climactic scene causes a patron sitting down the row from you to say “No way” audibly several times.
But Jane Martin’s “Keely and Du,” now being staged by the UDM Theatre Company, is known for provoking such responses.
Nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and winner of the 1994 American Theater Critics Association New Play Award, “Keely” tells the story of a young pregnant woman who’s kidnapped and imprisoned by Christians who plan to force her to carry the baby to term, against her wishes.
Keely (Susan Boonenberg), the victim of her ex-husband’s rape, wakes up handcuffed to a bed in a strange basement, finding herself in the care of a nurse named Du (Wendy Wagner), who’s sympathetic and nurturing, but also steadfast about her mission to do God’s work.
Obviously, “Keely” takes on the most controversial topic out there, and does so unflinchingly, offering occasional moments of humor in order to break the mounting tension. And mount it does over the course of two hours, as arguments on both sides of the issue are voiced, and Keely and Du inevitably grow closer.
On opening night, UDM’s production – directed by David R. Regal – sometimes felt sluggish in the first act, as the show strains to establish the passage of time (via several blackouts) and work in the necessary exposition.
But more sustained scenes in act two provide an opportunity for greater engagement and tension. Both female leads do good work, with Boonenberg – despite a too-heavy reliance on eye-rolling and sighing – having her best moments when Keely’s either fighting back or opening up. Wagner’s Du, meanwhile, seemed a bit vanilla at first, but as the show found its rhythm, so did Wagner.
Melinda Pacha’s scenic design is spot-on, from “Keely”‘s exposed ceiling bare bulbs, to its (painted to look like) concrete walls and high-security door. And Regal uses the stage well – especially considering that one of the characters is chained to a bed throughout most of the play.
Yes, the play’s critical last scene seemed a whimper of a coda rather than a final spark on opening night. But when a play causes audience members to gasp, and listen to and think about opinions they don’t personally align with, you know you’re in the grip of a play you won’t soon forget.
‘Keely and Du’
UDM Theatre Company at Marygrove College Theatre, 8425 W. McNichols Rd., Detroit. Thursday-Sunday through Oct. 10. $18. 313-993-3270. http://theatre.udmercy.edu