Djerassi pushes the envelope with ‘Taboos’

Feb. 18, 2011, 12:30 a.m.
Djerassi pushes the envelope with 'Taboos'
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Taboos” is one of the latest plays by Stanford scientist-turned-playwright Carl Djerassi. It explores the consequences of nontraditional birth — everything from the use of sperm donors to in vitro fertilization — and how that affects the modern definition of parenthood. The story is set in modern-day San Francisco and Jackson, Miss. By creating a story about five adults, two families, several different ideologies and a handful of children, Djerassi writes a very modern, intriguing play about what it means to be a parent in the face of new reproductive technology.

The play begins with Harriet and Sally, a lesbian couple, meeting on their first date in San Francisco. Harriet, a doctor, is confident and witty from beginning, while Sally, a TV reporter, is more soft-spoken and easily flustered. Their conversation starts out awkwardly but quickly moves into witty rapport, establishing a relationship that, a few time skips later, becomes a domestic partnership.

The couple, mainly at Sally’s insistence, decides to have a baby. To do so, they enlist the help of Harriet’s brother, Max, to be the sperm donor. Things are simple enough until Sally’s conservative brother Cameron arrives in San Francisco from Mississippi. He immediately takes issue not only with Sally’s “unnatural” relationship with Harriet but also their unconventional means of pregnancy.

Controversial or not, Sally and Harriet’s first child is born, and all seems well — until Harriet starts feeling left out of their marriage. Meanwhile, back in Mississippi, Cameron and his wife Priscilla struggle to become pregnant and begin to look at other options like in vitro. Cameron, who has begun visiting his sister in San Francisco more often, has become more open-minded about their unusual relationship, unlike his staunchly religious wife.

Things take a turn for the complicated when Harriet and Cameron secretly make a deal — Cameron will donate sperm to Harriet so she can be a mother as well, and she will donate eggs to Cameron so that Priscilla can undergo in vitro fertilization. Soon, two more babies, biologically twins but born to different mothers, are born, and the complications between the families ensue.
Throughout the play, the conflict of different beliefs is strongly present. Cameron and his wife Priscilla are often seen praying and quoting the bible, while Harriet and Sally make noticeably more rational arguments for equality. Although the glaring contrast between liberal San Francisco and conservative Mississippi seems a touch cliché, it serves the purpose of exploring how different ideologies react to the issues at hand in the play.

More interestingly, the play explores implications of nontraditional birth and parenthood. For example, if one woman donates an egg but another carries the child to term, who can be called the mother? Can a man be a biological father but officially just an uncle? What is the best option for the children created out of such unions? Although the play raises more questions than it answers, it certainly is enough to get the audience thinking.

The tone of the play carried the themes well. Although it was very dialogue-heavy and mostly serious, witty dialogue and stinging one-liners were sprinkled throughout the 90-minute performance, lightening the mood and keeping the audience engaged.
The acting throughout the play was strong. Chloe Bronzan stood out especially, portraying Harriet as a character who was at once confident and insecure, and forced to balance her own desires with what was best for her growing family. Courtney Walsh also shined as Priscilla, who, in stark contrast to Harriet, stood up for traditional Christian family values and also fought for her opportunity to be a mother.

“Taboos” is a fascinating, witty and entertaining exploration of the implications of nontraditional birth. Djerassi does an excellent job of expressing many of the issues, complications and emotions surrounding this issue through his characters.

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