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Subversive tackles a tough subject with ‘Keely and Du’

Jane Martin’s “Keely and Du” is not a household name, nor its themes – abortion and religious radicalism – an easy sell. But Martin’s play is different from its theatrical comrades. This is political, all right, here at Subversive Theatre’s Manny Fried Playhouse. How could it not be? (In her director’s note, Toni Smith Wilson admits her own pro-choice beliefs, a gracious and unnecessary offering.)

But while the story of Keely, a pregnant woman kidnapped by a right-to-life extremist group, watched over by a nun named Du, sounds anything but comforting, it delivers a third side to this neverending debate – one of compassion, understanding and empathy. One that insists that we listen if we insist on being heard.

Kelly M. Beuth is Keely, the fire-mouthed captive handcuffed to a gurney. Her nightmare began before we find her; Keely was raped by an abusive former lover, and decides to get an abortion, three months into her pregnancy. When she awakens, she is met with the unfathomable reality of her kidnapping. The abortion never took place.

Kate Olena is Du, an older, sweet nun, who greets her prisoner softly, accommodating to no end. That she is a kidnapper is just one of Du’s curious contradictions. That she is caretaking and gracious toward the woman she considers a sinner – she also is a nurse – is her biggest inconsistency; what a well-written character. Du poses the play’s moral questions effectively enough that you might question the implications of your answers: What side are you really on? Olena is simply on point in these moments. It is an exquisite, effortless performance.

Beuth’s Keely, on the other hand, is not as easy to wrap your arms around, though it would be hardened of you to not feel great agony for the poor soul. Beuth ignites Keely with a venomous rage, screaming through her clenched teeth, her jaw appearing unhinged, veins bulging. You might shed tears for her, or clutch your chest; you might want to punch someone in her defense. Beuth emotes without hesitation, though her performance still has holes in it. I must say that while the character Keely’s wrath is wholeheartedly understandable, the actor Beuth’s approach is still, respectfully, off.

I won’t begin to prescribe what sort of response a woman in this moment should have, but in this rendition, where an actor’s range must be considered, it felt lacking of discovery, too knowing of what is always about to happen. It went from zero to 60 without hesitation. Beuth finds her way around the volume nob later on, but over the long haul of this performance, it is often too loud.

When loud works, Beuth pulls some mighty punches, and in contrast, relaxes Keely’s tone enough to let Du in, where both are most vulnerable. This is where the play’s thesis succeeds. Connection is possible; you must not agree wholeheartedly to find common bonds.

In fact, Keely and Du’s chemistry – and that of Beuth and Olena – is the most effective aspect of this script. I question the decision to have two male characters in the mix, one of whom, the church group’s paternal figurehead, features prominently, and the other, Keely’s rapist, receives a superfluous, indulgent monologue.

Jack Agugliaro is appropriately inappropriate as Walter, the leader who visits the women multiple times a day to patronize and intimidate. Michael Starzynski, however, is a wrong choice for Cole, deflating all the air out of the second act’s admittedly strange turn of events. His character shouldn’t be there to begin with, but Starzynski makes strange choices in his portrayal, employing more intonations and gestures in a five-minute-and-counting monologue than one person would use in a whole day.

This second act is troublesome, to be fair. Cole’s scene is excruciatingly uncomfortable, in ways that have nothing to do with Starzynski’s performance. It’s exploitive of victims and of women, and of Keely, and I found it to be useless in telling her story. I’m still scratching my head at that decision. I would have preferred only Keely and Du for 90 continuous minutes, fighting and listening and yelling and healing about their inordinately opposing ideologies, with their insistence on being correct, and their admission that no one here is the winner.

2.5 stars (out of 4)

“Keely and Du,” by Jane Martin

Subversive Theatre Collective

The Manny Fried Playhouse, 255 Great Arrow Ave., Buffalo, NY 14207

Runs through Feb. 6, 8 p.m. Thursday - Saturday

Tickets are available online and at the box office. $25 general admission, $20 members, students and seniors., 408.0499