May 22, 2024

A Writer’s Article Challenges Her Decisions and Relationships in “Choice”; McCarter Stages “Wicked” Librettist’s Empathetic, Often Humorous Drama

“CHOICE”: Performances are underway for “Choice.” Written by Winnie Holzman, and directed by Artistic Director Sarah Rasmussen, the play runs through June 2 at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre. Above, from left: The friendship between Erica (Kate A. Mulligan) and Zippy (Ilana Levine) is tested by an impassioned disagreement over the latter’s approach to writing an article about a very controversial subject. (Photo by T. Charles Erickson)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

American political discourse, which already is fraught and polarized, only intensifies when the subject has a religious or spiritual aspect to it.

With Choice, playwright Winnie Holzman examines one of the most polarizing subjects: a woman’s right to choose. On the surface, the play is about reproductive freedom — and the possible ramifications of the decision that is made. But the piece also examines a woman’s a right to choose something else: how to engage with complex moral issues.

McCarter is presenting an updated iteration of Choice. Artistic Director Sarah Rasmussen directs, assisted by Tiger Brown.

In a May 8 Town Topics interview Holzman explains that she saw a need for a “play about abortion that was not like a polemic, but just an exploration of the subject in a human way.” The play originally premiered at Boston’s Huntington Theatre Company in 2015. Holzman has updated the script (leaving the core characters and concepts intact) to include references to COVID-19 — the play is now set during the shutdown, and characters wear masks — and the end of Roe V. Wade.

Holzman has credited John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt: A Parable (2004), a drama — about a priest’s possible sexual misconduct — which leaves its ending ambiguous, with inspiring her approach. But Choice also recalls the slice-of-life comedies of writers such as Neil Simon.

A Princeton University graduate, Holzman is the creator of the television series My So-Called Life. For theater, she is best known as the librettist of the musical Wicked (and screenwriter for the upcoming film duology). Of course, the worlds of the fantastical Wicked and the realistic Choice could hardly be more dissimilar. A comparison between the two is almost (but not entirely) pointless.

Choice centers on Zipporah “Zippy” Zunder, a successful journalist (portrayed by Ilana Levine). Zippy is authoring an article for Vanity Fair about Stephanie Beechum (a character not seen on stage), a film producer who believes in a theory called Children Lost and Found (CLAF). The central tenet of CLAF is that the souls of aborted babies are reincarnated to inhabit children who are born.

Zippy lives with her much older husband, Clark Plumly (Dakin Matthews), and their daughter, Zoe (Caitlin Kinnunen), who recently has graduated from college. Clark suffers from hearing loss that, idiosyncratically, disappears when Zoe speaks.

Levine uses a somewhat high, distinctly velvety voice to deliver her lines with gentle phrasing that is characterized by its smoothness. Perhaps this is something that Zoe, as a journalist, has learned to cultivate to enhance the comfort of people she interviews.

As Clark, Matthews is contemplative, with a penetrating gaze. The portrayal captures Clark’s deep affection and concern for Zippy. Kinnunen successfully conveys Zoe’s journey from a painful incident in her recent past, as well as post-graduation aimlessness, to a firm decision about her future.

At one point, during a conversation between the older characters, Rasmussen adds a subtle but notable touch: the parents and their friends are on a platform (which we soon realize is a turntable that facilitates changes of scene). Zoe, who periodically comments on differences between her generation and that of her parents, is not on the platform. She is a fair distance away, echoing the generational distance with physical space.

As the play begins, the family is entertaining Zippy’s caustic best friend, Erica Temple (Kate A. Mulligan) and her mild-mannered boyfriend, Mark (Barzin Akhavan). In the course of the conversation Zippy tells the guests about her in-progress article.

Erica immediately ridicules the idea of CLAF, particularly Beechum’s belief that her unborn daughter exists in the form of a Russian immigrant whom Zippy — unable to pronounce or spell her real name with precision — nicknames “Leah or Lena.” Zippy initially agrees, but we will discover experiences from her past that make her question this unbelief.

It is these conflicted feelings that seem to drive Levine’s pensive portrayal of Zippy. If the character had to be described in one word, it might be “haunted.” She is haunted by past decisions, but she needs to undertake the article to realize this, let alone come to terms with it.

As Erica, Mulligan exudes strength and worldliness. She has a sense of comic timing that enables her to swiftly land Erica’s mordant one-liners.

In the course of interviewing “Leah or Lena” for the article, Zippy flashes back to an appointment with a nurse at a women’s health clinic. (Kinnunen plays both Leah and the nurse, providing the former with a sufficiently convincing accent.)

This somewhat abrupt transition between time settings could be clearer. It took this writer a few moments to understand why Kinnunen suddenly omits Leah’s accent. (A production detail, such as a change in lighting, would provide a stronger demarcation.) That said, Kinnunen displays impressive versatility in juggling the three roles.

Later, Zippy encounters her ex-boyfriend, “The Other Mark” (Akhavan in a dual role). Akhavan’s portrayal of both roles is characterized by an agreeable sincerity, letting The Other Mark evince introspection.

The process of drafting Zippy’s article leads to her reluctant hiring of a research assistant, the mysterious Hunter Rush (Jake Cannavale). The choice of names is interesting; “Zippy” and “Rush” aptly tease a possible link between the two characters.

Cannavale infuses Hunter with aptly unpredictable motions that make him seem slightly dangerous. We see the extent to which the character is searching for something — we do not know what.

It is remarked above that a comparison between Wicked and Choice is “almost” pointless. The one similarity is that in both, two women choose specific, diverging paths that threaten to end their friendship.

In the case of Choice this occurs when Erica reads a draft of Zippy’s article, and strongly objects to the approach Zippy chooses to take in covering her subject matter. Levine and Mulligan are at their best in this [argument] scene, giving it the tension it needs. Their body language accentuates the differences between the two characters, with Mulligan’s sharp gestures contrasting with Levine’s more fluid motions.

The central reason that Erica is appalled has to do with Zippy’s open-mindedness about CLAF and its believers. Erica correctly perceives the extent to which this spiritual component — the question of what happens to the soul — has potential to affect the entire debate.

Certain character elements (such as Clark’s unpredictable hearing loss) are interesting, but could pull a bit more story weight for the stage time that they are given. Against that, there is value in adding elements that make the play’s world more vivid. Working from Holzman’s script, Rasmussen gives the actors plenty of stage business (such as the moving of holiday lights) that adds visual interest and gives us a realistic sense of household bustle.

Another production element that enhances the show’s world is the elaborately detailed set by Scenic Designer Andrew Boyce. A turntable moves us from the family’s kitchen (and other rooms in their comfortable-looking house, such as Zoe’s messy bedroom) to the exterior of a restaurant, or an examination room at a health clinic. The attractiveness of the set is heightened by Masha Tsimring’s lighting — particularly for the restaurant, and a scene in an upstairs bedroom, when moonlight catches Zippy’s face.

Costume Designer Raquel Adorno outfits Zippy with layers of clothing — she almost always has a jacket or another item over her shirt — that evoke the metaphoric layers that will be uncovered about pieces of her past.

Sound Designer Andre Pluess punctuates the play with brisk but introspective music that opens, and recurs throughout, the production. He also adds gives the noises that rattle Zoe at night their eeriness.

Choice is not the only play that examines reproductive issues; indeed, there is a volume of 34 Short Plays on Reproductive Freedom (2019). But to the conversation Holzman brings empathy — for her characters, and for audiences on all sides of the debate — and her talent for blending humor with serious drama. On that level Holzman succeeds in her goal of covering the play’s “subject in a human way.”

“Choice” runs through June 2 at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre. McCarter’s website notes that “this production contains adult themes and language. If you have additional questions about content, age-appropriateness or stage effects that might impact your comfort, please contact Patron Services at (609) 258-2787.” For tickets or additional information, visit