What Happens to Women Here
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
April 19, 2009
Ignaz Semmelweis was a Hungarian physician who lived from 1818 to 1865. He was a revolutionary, and as so often happens with people who are ahead of their time, his great discovery was disbelieved and disrespected in his lifetime. (His sad life story is told in this Wikipedia article; be warned, though, that reading it could spoil some of the plot twists in What Happens to Women Here.)
Playwright Ben Trawick-Smith clearly sees the dramatic possibilities in Semmelweis's life, and also the broader view that what happened to this visionary doctor is a cautionary tale for our time as well. In his play What Happens to Women Here, Trawick-Smith shows us a Semmelweis who believes that all human lives are equally to be valued and equally worth the best possible medical attention. Though his greatest contribution to science—an intuitive leap that contradicted the conventional wisdom of his time—had to do with the importance of cleanliness, it is his compassion for all of his sick and dying patients that I think we are intended to take away with us from this compelling historical drama.
What Happens plays out on three simultaneous tracks. The main storyline focuses on Semmelweis, a young, brash Hungarian physician who is working in obstetrics in a clinic in Vienna. His patients are the poorest pregnant women, often prostitutes; they are frequently victims of puerperal fever (a program note explains how prevalent this disease was in the early 19th century; it was considered incurable until Semmelweis began his work). Semmelweis is constantly at odds with his supervisor, Johann Klein. He is inspired by Jakob Kolletschka, whose work in forensic medicine means that he mostly works with corpses in the morgue.
As counterpoint to Semmelweis's story, Trawick-Smith introduces us to a pair of midwives working in another clinic. The number of cases of puerperal fever is much smaller here; Semmelweis is determined to find out why.
A third throughline tells the predictably woeful story of Theresa, a factory girl working in a Vienna brewery who is courted by a wealthy young student named Tobias. Echoing Wedekind's Spring Awakening, this section of the play decries the rampant sexual ignorance of the period, as well as the consequences of inequality among classes and between the sexes. When Theresa becomes pregnant, it's pretty evident how her life and Semmelweis's will intersect.
Theresa puts a face to the fear that lower class women had of childbirth, and to the wastefulness and inhumanity of a system that devalued these women. But I would have preferred for Trawick-Smith to spend more stage time on the institutionalized obstacles and ideas that Semmelweis himself was up against; Theresa and Tobias's story is familiar and tends toward the melodramatic, while Semmelweis's is little-known and potentially more illuminating for a contemporary audience interested in the progress of medicine and social consciousness over the past century and a half.
That said, What Happens to Women Here is gripping theatre, even when we can guess how things will play out. Director Amy Kaissar keeps the pace fluid and fast, utilizing various playing areas within the tiny space to fine effect. (Some of the sets had some technical issues at the opening performance that will hopefully be rectified.) Jessica Lustig's costumes define the period very effectively (though Trawick-Smith's dialogue often feels much more modern).
Morgan Nichols gives an intense and deeply felt performance as Semmelweis, anchoring the play firmly. Also strong are Ellen DiStasi and Maria Schirmer as the two midwives. Daryl Lathon gives us a jaunty Jakob, while DR Mann Hanson is effective as the spoiled student Tobias.
Stone Soup Theatre Arts is presenting What Happens to Women Here in repertory with Anthony Clarvoe's The Living, which is set in London during the time of the bubonic plague. Both pieces are part of the company's season dedicated to "Diagnosing the Present," presumably by looking back at medical challenges of our collective past. It's a worthy premise, and this new drama by first-time playwright Trawick-Smith provides audiences with plenty of food for thought.