Everything that happens here is predicated on its characters’ matter-of-fact acceptance of a status quo that now seems beyond comprehension or tolerance. As Philomena says to another slave, Lewis (Shawn Randall), who fantasizes about freedom, “How does someone imagine that when they’ve never experienced it?”
The education of Philomena gives the play its moral structure, which parallels and intersects with the more familiar arc of a maverick scientist’s progress. Only 19 when the play begins, Philomena is a woman of self-contained poise and intelligence.
Acting as a liaison and troubleshooter between George and the increasing number of slave women who become his patients and subjects, she knows she has it good. She feels sympathy, slightly detached, for the others, whose surgeries she witnesses firsthand.
But despite the precise and horrible catalog of side effects of these women’s conditions — lacerating scars, burning seepage, an abiding stench they try to disguise with homemade perfumes — she doesn’t really understand what they are going through. Then she has her own disastrous experience of giving birth, and her role in George’s house — and his life — is altered forever.
Embodied with wonderfully delicate ambivalence by Ms. Lorrain, Philomena is the audience’s surrogate in coming to consciousness. But it’s the developing and changing bond among the slave women — and their different degrees of resignation to their lot — that gives the play its heart.
Portrayed by Nia Calloway, Cristina Pitter, Amber Reauchean Williams and Jehan O. Young, they’re all first-rate. They convey a bone-deep familiarity with one another that is obviously the product of much thoughtful rehearsal. (Philomena to Lewis, after he says he likes to keep to himself: “We survive longer when we don’t.”)
Each of their characters has to some extent been defined by archetypal shorthand — the funny one, the angry one, the helpful one, etc. But the actresses here inhabit their parts with grounding, defining detail and without comic or tragic exaggeration.