Preview: ‘An Immaculate Misconception’
Science and ethics collide in timely drama
Some might find it ironic that a scientist who spent much of his first career preventing birth is now, in his third career, writing plays about the ethics of birth itself. But as Dr. Carl Djerassi, the father of the birth control pill and onetime chemistry professor at Wayne State University, told Curtain Calls last week, “That’s becoming much more the issue. I really believe that while the last 50 years what we achieved in reproduction was contraception, in the next 50 years it will be conception and, of course, infection.”
What has piqued Djerassi’s curiosity is Intracytoplasmic Sperm Injection, a laboratory procedure that is the subject of “An Immaculate Misconception,” his intriguing drama that opens Sept. 7 for a short run at Detroit’s Hilberry Theatre. The procedure – more commonly known as ICSI (pronounced ICK-see) – was invented by Belgian scientists in 1991 to treat male infertility. It involves the selection of a single sperm under a microscope that is injected directly into an egg’s cytoplasm to enable fertilization. Two or three days later, the egg is put back into a woman and a natural pregnancy generally results. “It’s a medical issue that no one would make much argument about,” Djerassi said.
But it’s not the science that concerns the scientist-turned-novelist-turned-playwright; rather, it’s ICSI’s ethical implications.
“Since you need only one sperm, and since the sex of the offspring is controlled by the sperm and not by the egg – and we now can separate X and Y chromosome-bearing sperm – you can order the sex of your child if you wish with 100 percent certainty,” Djerassi said. “Well, the implications are enormous.”
Another concern is sperm used without the knowledge or permission of the donor – such as when it is aspirated from the body of a dead man. “That’s been done,” he acknowledged.
“What about professional women who postpone childbearing? With ICSI you have the real prospect that women could preserve their young eggs, put them in a bank like a man can put sperm into a bank and freeze them, and 15 or 20 years later have a child in her early 40s using one of her young eggs. You will certainly be able to fertilize these with ICSI much better than by any other means.”
Then there’s this once far-future scenario: genetic screenings of multiple embryos created through ICSI. “Before you put [a fertilized egg] back into a woman, you can screen an embryo for certain mutations or genetic abnormalities and pick the embryo that does not contain it. Some people think that’s fantastic, other people think you’re playing God.”
And what do you do with the remaining, unused embryos?
“There are enormous implications – ethical, moral and social – and they should be debated. And I’m trying to encourage this sort of debate in my plays. Because for every horror scenario, you can always say, ‘But what if…?'”
How do you keep an audience involved in a play when they don’t understand the science it discusses?
That’s the million dollar question director Gillian Eaton has been contemplating since accepting the assignment to direct “An Immaculate Misconception” a few months back.
In Djerassi’s play, a 37-year-old scientist wants to have a baby, but the man she loves is already married – to another woman. At the same time, she needs a womb to try her new cure for male infertility. So why not use her own – with the sperm of an unsuspecting donor? And how complicated does it become when her lab partner decides to try a little experiment of his own?
“My job is to build characters that you might be intrigued by and allow them to sit and spiel their science at you because there’s something inherently charming about them,” Eaton explained. “Then you have to move it about the stage so we’re looking at different pictures all the time without obfuscating the message or the argument. And I’m relying on pacing and music, as well, to keep the tension intact.”
In other words, “You bring out all your tricks – all your tools – when you’re dealing with a play that has so much science in it.”
Theatergoers won’t have to imagine the ICSI process, however; a video of the procedure is part of the production. “There’s either something violent about it or there’s something so intimate that you shouldn’t be watching it.”
There’s also nudity in the play.
“There’s sex in the lab and sex in the bedroom. Both are on display here. Which is more authentic for the reproduction of our species?” Eaton pondered.
It was a question also on the minds of Eaton’s three actors at the beginning of their first rehearsal last week.
“If you enjoyed Roxanne [Wellington] in ‘Boston Marriage,’ come see this because she’ll be naked. Or semi-naked,” Eaton teased. “And so will Tom [Hoagland] – he just doesn’t know it yet!”
Recent Hilberry graduate Mark Robson seemed relieved to learn he wouldn’t get naked in the production. Instead, he’ll masturbate on stage. “It won’t be the first time,” Robson laughed. “Maybe mom won’t be coming to watch this!”
Ever the scientist
Eaton met with Djerassi earlier this summer while visiting London. “From his perspective, this is just as much an experiment to him as any lab experiment that he creates,” she said.
Although the play was first performed in 1998 and has been translated into 11 languages, Djerassi made numerous changes for the Detroit production – including the ending.
“I’ve always dreamt of showing two alternative endings of a play of mine, and now I’ve been able to convince the director to actually try it. So when people think the play is done, suddenly a character will step forward and say, ‘Yeah, but what if…’ I’m damn curious to see it and see how it works,” the playwright concluded.