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Theatre Reviews Within the Glass strides headlong into the emotional minefield of fertility and childbirth

A scene from Within the Glass.

Cylla von Tiedemann

2.5 out of 4 stars

Title
Within the Glass
Written by
Anna Chatterton
Directed by
Andrea Donaldson
Actors
Paul Braunstein, Nicola Correia-Damude, Philippa Domville and Rick Roberts
Venue
Tarragon Theatre
City
Toronto
Year
2016
Runs Until
Sunday, February 14, 2016

The premise of Anna Chatterton's Within the Glass – at a fertility clinic, an embryo is accidentally implanted in the wrong woman – sounds like the makings of a bad Hollywood comedy. To be specific, it sounds like an in vitro variation on The Switch, that 2010 Jennifer Aniston flick where she was artificially inseminated with the wrong sperm.

But Tarragon Theatre, where Chatterton's play is premiering, is not known for producing fatuous comedies suited to the multiplex and Within the Glass definitely isn't popcorn fare.

True, Chatterton's funny opening scenes are farcical enough to fuel an Aniston vehicle, but don't be fooled: Before long, the gutsy playwright is striding headlong into the emotional minefield of fertility and childbirth. If you're pregnant, trying to conceive, or if you don't like hearing the fetus-versus-child abortion debate hashed out onstage, there's a good chance you'll be upset and/or offended by her raucous "dramedy."

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If you don't fit any of those descriptions, then you'll likely find her play's arguments provocative and its performances entertaining, even if Chatterton doesn't always have a firm grasp of her characters. There are more mood swings here than in a real pregnancy.

Darah (Philippa Domville) and Michael (Rick Roberts) are the embryo's genetic parents. They're a sleek corporate couple who live in a sleek modern house (designed by Julie Fox with a fine eye for trendy absurdity). They've invited performance artist Linda (Nicola Correia-Damude), who was inadvertently impregnated with their fertilized egg, and her poet husband, Scott (Paul Braunstein), over for dinner. Although Linda is in her second trimester, this is the first time the two couples have met.

Putting aside their anger at the clinic, Darah and Michael have been planning a celebratory meal, complete with coq au vin, confident that Linda will deliver their first child in six months' time – after all, it's theirs according to provincial law. But they're in for a rude shock: neither Linda nor Scott intend to give them the baby. Scott wants to have it aborted, but Linda, unbeknownst to him, has changed her mind and wants to adopt it.

There ensues a battle that re-frames the classic dilemma from Brecht's The Caucasian Chalk Circle – what defines motherhood? – for the era of reproductive technology. And making the dispute more fraught, Darah and Michael have been trying desperately to have a baby by in vitro fertilization (IVF) for six years. At 44, Darah sees this embryo as her last chance. Linda, on the other hand, is a robust 36 and she and Scott already have an eight-year-old daughter. But the question of fairness isn't going to sway Linda, who now feels inseparable from the fetus growing in her womb.

There are some ugly moments of fertility envy between Domville's high-strung Darah and Correia-Damude's smug earth-mother Linda. The men aren't much help. Roberts's comically eager-to-appease Michael falls over himself trying to be conciliatory, while Braunstein's boorish Scott – who is extraordinarily insensitive for a poet – serves as the voice of crude reason. Chatterton also adds some class tensions between the couples, not to mention concerns over Linda's birthing philosophy (she's an eat-the-placenta kind of mom) and even her vegetarianism. Turns out that coq au vin was a bad idea.

Chatterton is one of Tarragon's many resident playwrights and this is her first production with the company. She's better known for her collaborations with Evalyn Parry and Karin Randoja as the Independent Aunties feminist collective (their latest work, Gertrude and Alice, will be seen at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre this March). Within the Glass may be her most conventional play, style-wise, and it follows the pattern of other plays about two troubled couples, from Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? to God of Carnage. It may even owe something to Kat Sandler's 2013 SummerWorks hit Delicacy, which also dealt with class and pregnancy.

To Chatterton's credit, some of the scenes between her characters – especially those with Michael and Darah – have a stinging authenticity. But at other times she falls back on stereotypes, particularly with the ill-defined Scott, who seems to be here mainly to provide the Neanderthal perspective. The show also hits a plateau midway through its 90 minutes that, under Andrea Donaldson's direction, threatens to become a dead spot.

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Chatterton says her play was inspired by a real-life mix-up at a U.S. clinic. In fact, this mistake has happened on a number of occasions, including publicized cases in the U.K. in 2009 and most recently in Rome in 2014, where a woman gave birth to IVF twins after being erroneously implanted with another couple's embryos.

The complex process of in vitro (Latin for "within the glass") fertilization is enough of an emotional ordeal without the heartbreak of discovering your future child has been placed in the wrong person's uterus. It's hard to imagine some happy Hollywood-style resolution and Chatterton doesn't attempt to provide one. Instead she uses this rare but difficult situation to remind us that, necessary or not, few things are more powerful than the need to reproduce. The goddess of fertility, she suggests, can be just as merciless as the god of carnage.

Within the Glass runs to Feb. 14 at Tarragon Theatre (tarragontheatre.com).

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