By Sam Pynes
Predictor, The Johnny Carson Theater in the Lied Center, Angels Theatre Company, February 9, 2023, Final Dress Rehearsal
Today is yet another world premiere of a new play in Lincoln. What an exciting time! The playwright, Jennifer Blackmer, was in the Carson Theater for this final dress rehearsal, and Meg Crane herself will be attending the premiere. Blackmer has written a number of other plays highlighting women, and this production in Lincoln is the first of three national productions of Predictor.
Predictor is a play about an invention, later iterations of which are used daily in the United States and around the world, and the woman who invented it. Until recently her contribution was veritably lost to history, but this play hopes to set that record straight. Meg Crane is a (freelance) employee at a pharmaceutical firm who would like to be taken seriously and put to work as a graphic designer, but because she is a young woman in the 1960’s she is ignored and relegated to other duties. One fateful day she asks how the lab processes pregnancy tests, and comes to find that women could easily do this test at home if provided with the right product. This is one of countless stories of innovations that seem obvious in hindsight, but were slow to take effect, in this case even after the ideal device was patented.
Sometimes changing the world is as simple and difficult as asking the right question at the right time. Those questions often begin with “why,” and answering those whys often leads to a rebellion toward greater truth and understanding.
The world of 1967 feels like a different planet from our own, as Meg navigates a society that refuses to accept women as professionals, or even intelligent societal equals. The play begins with Meg considering the contract that will sign away her rights to her invention. We are almost immediately whisked away into her mind as she considers her year at Organon Pharmaceuticals which has led to this unusual moment. Meg’s mind is hosting a literal tv gameshow as she reminisces, interjecting her narrative with the the critical voices in her head that she has picked up from parental advice, society, education, and religion. Meg tries to sift through the conflicting advice of her shifting time as she decides which path will ultimately produce the result she seeks: better, quicker, and more private access to pregnancy tests. Is she willing to unfairly sacrifice even her own ego and financial benefit in the process?
The show is playful and even snarky at times, giving the production a positive energy that prompted laughter, and sustained the audience through the more serious scenes. What could be simply a horrifying peak into the past of female experience in the workplace is treated with enough levity to allow us to laugh at some of these characters for their outrageous behavior, while treating them like real people living in a different time with different norms. As the gameshow of her memories continues she begins to take control back from her influences to make her own decision regarding her legacy, even if it seems like a thankless one.
The simple set consists of just a few tables and chairs, with primacy of place given to the backdrop collage of contemporary women who have benefited from Meg’s legacy.
The strong ensemble of three women and three men double many parts in meaningful ways throughout as Meg relives moments from her childhood, school, and the more recent all-important discussions with her artistic roommate. They also become the voices in her head in other situations as their impressions come back to haunt or help her. I don’t think it is any accident that her father is paired with her supportive but imperfect boss, or her mother is paired with her vapid coworker.
The misogyny of the time is presented in a way which feels balanced between the unconscious everyday condescension of Tim Mittan’s Martin, and the insecure and offensive putdowns of Mason Gustafson’s Jack, who, in a fit of hysteria, has the temerity to tell the obviously calm Meg that she is “clearly being hysterical.” Jack was fun to dislike as he exasperatedly and horrifyingly asks Meg why she can’t “just behave.”
I enjoyed Mason’s recent performance as Mr. Green in Community Player’s Clue, and hope to see him in more productions. Eric Moyer has performed in each of Angel’s new plays this season, exhibiting his considerable range as villains, grieving parents, and now an imperfectly supportive workplace ally.
Liz Martelli as Meg is a wonderful balance of a character who is a part of her world but in many ways ahead of it and conducts herself onstage with energy and subtlety.
Britta Tollesfsrud as Meg’s roommate Jody gets some thematically heavy moments, including a short scene where she plays the distressed typist, Lillian. That scene had me leaning forward in my chair as she shared her plight with Meg. Sasha Dobson and Maribel Cruz play Meg’s mother and grandmother respectively, as well as a variety of other characters, all with differing manners of speaking, such as Cruz’s imperious and didactic nun teacher. As a Catholic myself I was saddened by Meg’s negative experience growing up in the Catholic Church of the 50’s and 60’s, and I hope that fewer people are having that experience now in our own time.
One of of the objections raised to Meg in the show is that the only reason a woman might want a product like this is to procure an abortion. It is further derogatively implied that only a promiscuous person, presumably Meg, would need such a thing. The misogynists of the company don’t actually care about abortion or the moral philosophical questions, but the societal cost and perception of dealing with a subject considered controversial. Meg is right in saying that the device is not about abortion, but about information. Those who stand in the way of knowledge rarely win out in the end.
The home pregnancy test was not about religion, or abortion, but something much broader – a sane and rational acknowledgment of the fact that women’s bodies, perspectives, and needs are different from men’s. Women are valuable and necessary voices in the workplace and society, especially in the areas that concern their own unique experience. Our society still has its own myopias and colliding philosophies about personhood, religion, and gender in society, but I am glad that we now live in world where we can talk about it. Even if it is not always implemented and expressed perfectly equitably, it is the cultural normative that women, and indeed all subjective groups, are valued for their unique as well as general perspectives and that people should be treated with respect and dignity and should be allowed personal and private autonomy to conduct their private affairs. Meg helped to give us this change with Predictor, even while she nobly chose to do it in a society that did not reward her for her invention, and furthermore delayed it for ten years. I think that makes her a bit of a hero as well.
When you see this new work I hope you come away with thankfulness for a woman who had the forethought and courage to ask the questions to make the world a better place, even against odds unfairly stacked against her. What other innovations of our own time will seems so clear and obvious to our descendants, and whom are we keeping from accomplishing them? That’s what I’ll be thinking about this week, and I hope you do too.
If you go: Predictor opens tonight and runs February 10-19, Thur-Sat 7:30PM and Sun at 2PM. Tickets may be purchased at https://www.liedcenter.org/event/predictor-world-premiere. Performances take place in the Lied Center’s Carson Theater.
Sam Pynes is an actor, writer, and story enthusiast. Mostly harmless. Current Managing Editor of Appearing Locally.
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