When she was in her mid-40s, Alice Eve Cohen had her life turned upside-down by an unexpected pregnancy, a condition that was compounded by a supreme level of incompetence on the part of the medical profession that put both her and her baby in danger. Once the dust settled and her physical and personal conditions got back on track – albeit a different track from the one she thought she was on – Cohen wrote it down in a book that became a play, both called "What I Thought I Knew."
There are light moments, to be sure, but the heart of the story is Alice's internal crisis when everything she thought she knew is pushed aside by what is, or maybe is not, true.
The one-woman show "What I Thought I Knew," presented by Jewish Repertory Theatre of Western new York through February, is remarkable for several reasons. The most obvious is the incredible performance by Josie DiVincenzo, who plays Alice and just about everyone else she knows — her boyfriend, daughter, doctors, students and even the medical technician who tells her she doesn't have a tumor, she has a baby. Director Saul Elkin said in his program notes that there are more than 40 characters. That sounds about right.
DiVincenzo appears to have met and mastered them all, but she does more than that. With various accents, gaits and postures – and no props other than two lightweight chairs – she somehow can become a room full of people, all interacting with one another. Or, she's Alice's musician fiancé, strumming a guitar. The most infuriating character is probably the OB-GYN. Yes, Alice has told us that she can't get pregnant because of uterine problems, but when she starts describing her medical problems — swelling in the abdomen, breast pain, morning sickness, fatigue, sore hips – every mother in the audience and probably half the men with them recognize the symptoms of pregnancy. The OB-GYN misses it, even when doing a pelvic exam when Alice is five months along. "Middle-age loss of muscle tone" and "Welcome to menopause" my eye!
Still, what is happening from Alice's neck down is only half the story. This news isn't a mere footnote in this chapter of her life, it is rewriting the whole narrative. Alice always knew she couldn't get pregnant; she has a daughter whom she adopted and loves very much. So, what is she to make of this new Alice?
"My identity is predicated on my infertility," she half muses, half rages. Having a baby inside her now, at this age, well that's as "lunatic" as finding out she's a man, a billionaire, a Republican. The whole thing is so shocking it takes a while for her to realize that, as her doctor tells her, this is good news: "We thought you had cancer."
Good news for her, but perhaps not for the fetus that has been subjected to excessive estrogen, radiation and various other not-recommended treatments while going undetected for six months. And, initially things don't look good. Alice is a high-risk pregnancy because of her age and that makes her mama-non-grata among medical experts who don't want to be responsible at this late stage of the pregnancy.
Although the happiness that began Alice's show is all but extinguished during the play's midpoint, we stay with her while she sorts out her choices, argues with her boyfriend and comes to terms with what she has come to know is really true about herself. At times it's a little repetitive, at times we might want to be like Cher in "Moonlight" and tell her to "snap out of it;" mostly, though, she reminds us all of those times when the bottom drops out and you don't know what, or who, to hold on to.
"What I Thought I Knew"
★ ★ ★ ½ (out of 4)
Presented by Jewish Repertory Theatre of Western New York in the Maxine & Robert Seller Theatre, 2640 North Forest Road, Getzville. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, 3:30 and 7:30 p.m. Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays through March 1. Tickets are $38 general, $36 for seniors, $10 for students and available by calling 650-7626, through Showclix at 888-718-4253 and at either JCC reception desk.