A modern audience that sees the world premiere of Wickedest Woman during its run at the WP Theater will know abortion as a controversial topic. The morality of the medical procedure is frequently contested as states introduce laws to restrict access to abortion.
This narrative would be familiar to the real Ann Lohman, aka “Madame Restell,” the midwife and abortionist whose life story is told in this electrifying new play by Jessica Bashline. Lohman lived through a time where abortion was legal until it wasn’t, and would likely look at the years between Roe v. Wade to a 2019 Supreme Court dominated by conservative justices with a sense of knowing dread.
While abortion remains a hot topic of debate in modern America, there is no “both-sidesing” of the issue in the narrative of Wickedest Woman. Every character, save for an unseen mob at Madame Restell’s door, and a proselytizing district attorney at her trial, treat it as a fact of life that some women will want or need to terminate their pregnancies as naturally as other women will want to give birth to and raise children. Ann herself remains confident in the morality of her actions, but is not immune to the toll that anti-abortion rhetoric takes on her business and personal safety.
As the protagonist, Jessica O’Hara Baker gives a fierce, intense performance that carries the show. She’s electrifying to watch, and her presence is missed in the few moments she’s offstage for a costume change. She’s aided by a strong, gender-bending supporting cast that steps fluidly in and out of the multiple characters they play, most memorably Evan Daves and Luke Zimmerman as two women in different stages of their pregnancies who need Ann’s help. The minute they begin to tell their stories, their pain and vulnerability shines through, and any socialized instinct to guffaw at the sight of a man dressed as a woman immediately dies.
The production is thoughtfully directed by Melissa Crespo whose team uses subtle music and lighting cues to transition between set changes and the different periods of Ann Lohman’s life. There were a few minor hiccups (a cue missed here, a line flub there) in the opening night performance, but nothing that diminished the enthusiasm of a very engaged audience. Wickedest Woman is a play worth braving the cold weather for, to see the story of an exceptional woman whose modern relevance is, at once, depressing and inspiring.
Wickedest Woman is playing at WP Theater at 2162 Broadway through February 2nd.