Return to the list of Past Productions

APRIL 25 - JULY 13, 1998

When pro-choice Megan stars in a commercial for the right-to-life movement, the battle of reproduction rights gets personal.  Unexpected romance, an activist roommate and a right-to-life zealot raise important challenges and questions in this funny and insightful drama that takes on one of the most passionate issues of the day.  John Simon of New York Magazine called it "the most intelligent and entertaining play of the season..."

Wendy Makkena & Don McManus

Wendy Makkena & Gregg Henry

Photos by I.C. Rapoport

- WINNER, 1998 L.A. Drama Critics Circle Award:
Lead Performance (Pam Dawber & Wendy Makkena)
Lighting Design (Keith Endo)
Sound Design (Matthew C. Beville)

Read an L.A. Times feature article about director Lisa James and her direction of "The Water Children"


The Hollywood Reporter

"Water Children is Pro-Quality
by Ed Kaufman

As a sign of his willingness to attempt new things, Matrix Theatre Company producer Joseph Stern is mounting two contemporary American works to play in repertory.

One is Wendy MacLeod's intelligent, poignant and certainly timely comedy-drama "The Water Children," in its West Coast premiere run scheduled through July 13 in Los Angeles. The other, opening May 14, is the world premiere of Larry Atlas' "Yield of the Long Bond." Both are double-cast, and actors will alternate performances.

At the core of "The Water Children" is the passion-arousing issue of abortion as both an apolitical and personal issue. MacLeod manages to navigate the twin minefields of pro-life and pro-choice forces and arrive at a simple solution: Babies should be wanted, and each woman has a right to choose whatever she believes.

The crisis of conscience is not political, according to MacLeod, but personal, and all answers to the question of abortion are to be answered by the individual woman involved.

This includes the ambivalent Megan, who is forced to confront issues — and herself — in New York as well as in a temple in Japan.

All starts simply enough when childless, unmarried Megan, a struggling 36-year-old New York actress (in a touching, vulternable performance by Wendy Makkena), takes a job in a TV commercial for Life Force, a right-to-life-movement. This triggers all sorts of feelings about her own abortion when she was 16. She cannot escape the ghost of her aborted son Chance (Christopher Collett), who would now be 20 and who haunts her.

Ultimately, the ambivalent Megan must come to grips with both extremes: her impassioned lesbian roommate Liz (Sarah Zinsser) and the good-looking, smooth-as-silk leader of Life Force, Randall (a first-rate performance bv Don McManus).

He is a zealot with whom she has an affair and becomes pregnant. Along with Randall are a couple of on-the-edge, paranoiac teenage followers (Billie Worlev and Sarah Gibb are troubled and fine). Credit Claudette Nevins and Dave Higgins with strong support in an assortment of roles.

Lisa James' astute direction is sure and swift, ably mixing the comic and the serious as well as the past and present in the movable set by Deborah Raymond and Dorian Vernacchio.

L-R: Gregg Henry, Pam Dawber & Sarah Zinsser

Los Angeles Times (CRITIC'S CHOICE)

'Water Children' Plunges Into Abortion Controversy

Abortion is such a dramatic issue that it's surprising so few plays have dealt with it. With the provocative "The Water Children," at the Matrix Theatre, playwright Wendy MacLeod ventures bravely into the controversy, wielding a sharp comic sense and a willingness to understand both sides of the battle.

While the play's resolution will probably satisfy abortion rights advocates more than their opponents, MacLeod also questions some of the arguments cited by vocal supporters of legal abortion.

The big group that's somewhere in the middle, between the extremes, will identify strongly with the plight of Megan, a 36-year-old New York actress who's hired to shoot a commercial for an anti-abortion organization, in which she'll play a woman with second thoughts about her abortion.

Megan herself went through an abortion 20 years ago. She readily admits she has no idea when life begins. But she does know she needs the $15,000 for three days of work on the commercial. And when she starts seeing visions of the boy her fetus might have become, she hears the ticking of her biological clock.

That sound becomes deafening when she gets to know Randall, the suave and good-humored leader- of the anti-abortion group that's sponsoring her commercial. Randall and Megan begin an awkward romance, much to the disgust of Megan's lesbian roommate Liz.

A couple of young anti-abortion volunteers complicate Randall's wooing. Especially troublesome is Tony Dinardi, a gun-owning hairdresser's assistant whose job and fantasies indicate that he was modeled on the late John C. Salvi III, who shot up a Boston Planned Parenthood clinic in 1994.

The inclusion of the zealous Tony is what finally tilts the balance of the play toward the abortion rights side, making the anti-abortion side easier to dismiss.  Liz, the only clear-cut abortion rights advocate in the play, is no crazy.  Nor is there a single scene that's set in an abortion clinic - which is, of course, where the anti-abortionists believe the damage is done.  However, playwrights who explore burning issues need not be impartial referees; they can take stands, as long as they start their audiences thinking and simultaneously captivate them by their stories.

MacLeod clearly does this. Pausing briefly for quick forays into Megan's memories and fantasies on :the subjects of her own abortion and motherhood, MacLeod moves her characters swiftly toward a climactic clash, which director Lisa James has staged in the short aisle between the two halves of the Matrix seating.

At one point the action is a bit too swift to be credible—when Megan and Randall fail to give a moment's thought to birth control. But otherwise the play rings true.

If the plot sounds TV movie-like, MacLeod alters that impression soon after the big showdown, introducing a different, foreign view of abortion, apart from the polarizing American debate, and a new way of handling Megan's crisis. It's an intriguing perspective, made tangibly vivid by a surprising addition to the previously stark set design by Deborah Raymond and Dorian Vernacchio.

As with all Matrix Theatre Company productions, James' lively staging is double cast; At the reviewed performance, Wendy Makkena, who also played Megan in New York, embodied this conflicted woman with superb timing, while Don McManus made Us see what Megan saw in Randall. Their roles are also played by Pam Dawber and Gregg Henry.

Christopher Collet was quite moving as Chance, Megan's might-have-been son. Sarah Zinsser steered Liz's withering barbs away from sitcom-style mugging, while Billie Worley's heedless manner made Tony funny as well as frightening.

Don McManus & Wendy McKenna

Drama-Logue, April 30, 1998

The Water Children describes one of the wildest rides into maternity ever taken. Its protagonist. Megan, an actress in Manhattan, who suffered an abortion at 16, is asked to do a commercial for Life Force, a militant right-to-life organization. Not only does she toss her pro-choice feelings out the window, she soon finds herself pregnant by the handsome Randall, chief executive of Life Force. Whether or not their relationship is going to survive and whether or not she is going to abort another fetus become the most significant questions of her life.

If this sounds like an earnest cautionary lesson about one of the most controversial moral issues of our time, forget it. Playwright Wendy MacLeod is hip, funny and slick. Nor is her writing style confined to the conventionally naturalistic. There are several fantasy sequences, well-grounded in Megan's psyche, that elevate The Water Children to something far beyond social treatise. She has a wonderful ear. and much of the dialogue is so cleverly written as to be both chillingly and ludicrously accurate. Combine MacLeod's grasp of how people really behave in the 1990's with director Lisa James' breathless pacing, and the result is an entertainingly imaginative evening about an extremely important debate exemplified by the inner struggle of a genuinely compelling woman. In fact, the scene in which mutually consenting adults begin ripping off each other's clothing is brilliantly staged by James and blazingly erotic. On the other hand. James has taken a big risk staging the climactic scene of The Water Children in the aisle of the Matrix Theatre, but that is just the kind of gutsy director she is.

The cast, with the exception of two actors, is exemplary. The splendid Wendy Makkena as Megan has had a bit of a head start on the others because she has already performed this character in New York. It shows. She is edgy without ever being obnoxious, funny without ever being ludicrous. Her strongest suit, however, as an actress is her uncanny talent for finding physical expression for the character's state of indecision. You might say her unconscious fidgeting has metaphysical import. This is, finally, a play about a woman discovering who she is and where she stands, and it is a pleasure to share the exploration with Makkena. Fortunately working on the same high level is Don McManus as Randall. How this personable actor makes the blatantly manipulative head of a pro-life organization sympathetic is the result of considerable thought and insight on McManus's part. He and James have done everything under the sun to make this character more than a caricature and less than an ogre, and they have been surprisingly successful. A lot of this play, which seemingly gives voice to both sides of the "right to life" debate is ultimately skewed in favor of the "pro choice" forces, which means that in the theater community it will mostly be preaching to the converted. But few will leave the Matrix Theatre without appreciating the merits of the opposing argument, and much of the credit for this may be explained by the genial and intelligent way McManus handles an ultimately unsavory character. As Liz. Megan's caustic lesbian roommate puts it. "An asshole is someone who doesn't know he's an asshole." Dave Higgins plays four roles—Dad/Roger/Jim/A Priest— with consummate skill, wringing some of the biggest laughs of the evening out of Roger, a gay hairdresser. Claudette Nevins is equally versatile as Kit/Mom/Cat (yes, a feline pet!). Kit is everybody's worst fears about an agent, and Nevins' nail-on-the-head interpretation opens the play with a lot of wit and verve. Billie Worley is pain-fully disturbing as Tony Dinardi. a mentally unstable right-to-lifer. Sarah Bibb's Crystal, who compulsively tells and re-tells the story of her own "abortion." is equally chilling. With these last two characters, MacLeod unleashes a no-holds-barred hatred of fanaticism. They are both overwrought; watching them, it is impossible to relax. MacLeod intends to make her audience squirm, and for most of the time these two people are on stage, we do.

Less successful as a character is Liz. angrily played by Sara Zinsser, who veers perilously close to a parody of a lesbian. Finally, the habit of casting adults as children—in this case a very mature Christopher Collet as Megan's yet-to-be-born little boy—is ill-founded. We watch a 26-year-old adult playing a child—and like a sudden gunshot—we are instantly conscious of how false it is, and much too aware of the fact that we are sitting in a theater. A little boy would break our hearts: a man in the role makes us shrug in indifference. This misjudgment breaks the fourth wall, a bad idea that producer Joe Stern or MacLeod or James or casting director Marilyn Mandel or whoever was responsible should never repeat. They are not the only people who have made this error and they will not be the last, but it damages what is otherwise a really striking work.

Highly impressive is set designers Deborah Raymond & Dorian Vernacchio's vision. They dress this smart play with incredible taste and economy, and. combined with James' fine staging, keep the action moving in a variety of locales with breath-taking efficiency. The penultimate set. involving a Japanese shrine, is particularly compelling. Keith Endo's light-

(the ending of this review is lost)

Cindy Katz & Wendy McKenna

Rave! Magazine



For the first time since the Matrix Theater in Los Angeles began single production revivals five years ago, the theater presents two new contemporary American plays in repertory: "The Water Children" and "Yield of the Long Bond." Both are double cast.

Wendy MacLeod's "The Water Children" is the most tender of the two, directed by Lisa Jamei.

In it, abortion-rights activist Megan (played by Pam Dawber) finds herself cast in an anti-abortion commercial and attracted in a strange way to its right-wing manic creator, Randall, played by the always riveting Gregg Henry.

Her values are shattered into confusion over the abortion she chose to have 20 years ago, and having to play a woman who regrets making the same decision. She dreams of the son she didn't have. She does this while navigating through the insanity of the teen-agers who support Randall's organization — a psychotic boy, played by J.D. Cullum, and a mentally disturbed "miracle child," Crystal, played by Sarah Bibb.

MacLeod's talent is in presenting so many sides of the reproductive rights issue in such an entertaining, confrontational, tender, angry, frightening, compassionate and, ultimately, redeeming way.

She gently presents the view that our Western philosophies and religions fail us with rigidity when facing fundamental issues.

Yet MacLeod doesn't skirt any of the tough conflicts. She even makes Randall a complex character of contradiction, embarrassed that his wife left him for another woman. You almost come to like him.

Sarah Zissner as Megan's lesbian roommate, Liz, provides-the radical left point of view. Liz is there to remind us over and over again of Randall's real intent yet when his true character explodes on the steps between the audience seats, you may become sad that Liz was right. His rage of control frees Megan to find her true beliefs once again.

All performances are worthy of the highest accolades. Time Winters plays several supporting roles, and Claudette Nevins plays Megan's cool agent and warm mother. Young Christopher Gorham shows great talent in his gentle and loving performance as Megan's affectionate and wise unborn son.

Come to whatever opinion you will of reproductive rights, this is a play of powerful emotions and-intellectual discourse.

On a simple wooden structural set designed by Deborah Raymond and Dorian Vernacchio, the land of "The Water Children" is kept hidden by a rear screen, until the perfect moment.

Naomi Yoshida Rodriguez's costumes subtly convey the character's quirks and true personalities.

Nightlife - May 16, 1998

The Pro-Choice/Pro-Life debate presses a lot of emotional, moral, religious and philosophical hot buttons. The ferocious battle between warring opponents has resulted in heartbreak, violence and tragedy. In Water Children, Wendy MacLeod would seem to have given her characters advice from "The Taming of the Shrew" - " as adversaries do in law, Strive mightily, but eat and drink as friends." Megan (Wendy Makkena/Pam Dawber) takes the good advice a little further than is suggested. An actress who's waved goodbye to her fruitful years (that's around 30 in Hollywood Female years), is offered a role in a Pro-Life commercial. Desperate to work, she finds herself in conflict with her Pro-Choice conscience, her stridently activist roommate, Liz (Sarah Zinsser/Cindy Katz), and her pocketbook. Opting for solvency, she is shocked to find the enemy has a human face. Randall (Don McManus/Gregg Henry) has an appealing charm, a rational viewpoint, and a very acceptable body. The soul of reasonableness, he is as willing to listen to her as he is to make his point of view clear. MacLeod's writing is very even-handed, persuasive on both sides, and exceedingly brave in that it doesn't pander to current politically correct thinking which brooks no argument. It delves well below the surface of talk show discussion, stirs up demons that would have preferred to remain at rest, and runs those who have had any involvement with the subject through an emotional car wash. We understand some actors actually declined roles they couldn't relate to philosophically. Without making the piece a polemic, the playwright, in concert with some marvelous actors, achieves the almost impossible feat of making her characters, and the audience, pause to pay attention to the arguments and examine their deepest instincts. The play is double cast, as are all the Matrix Theatre Company's plays. On opening night, Wendy Makkena was superb as the beleaguered Megan; at the final curtain, she looked indeed as if she had truly gone through the mill and been ground out in little pieces. Billy Worley/JD Cullum, Sarah Bibb/Sara Rue, and Dave Higgins/Time Winters make up the rest of the superb ensemble. Worley especially, as the fringe fanatic on the Pro-Life team, is exceptional. Director Lisa James shows an outstanding hand, maintaining the theatricality, and the surprising humor, of the play without losing the importance of the sensitive subject matter, or missing a dramatic beat. Deborah Raymond and Dorian Vernacchio's simple and practical Set Design covers all the bases without requiring any lumpy moves and is well served by Keith Endo's Lighting Design. — Madeleine Shaner


Drama-Logue, April 30, 1998

Pam Dawber Enters a New Stage with The Water Children at the Matrix

by Elias Stimac

Once they make their mark in film and television, actors rarely get the chance to get up on stage, especially once they start a family. Pam Dawber is one performer who is fortunate enough to be able to do it all.

Having captured the hearts of American audiences with her starring roles in Mork & Mindy and My Sister Sam—she received People's Choice Awards for both TV series—Dawber took some personal time off to raise two children with her husband, actor Mark Harmon. However, she has never stopped working entirely. The actress has frequently appeared in movies-of-the-week such as Remembrance of Love and Oh. Do You Know the Muffin Man, as well as feature films, including Robert Altman's A Wedding.

She has also covered the theatrical bases, having performed in The Pirates of Penzance on Broadway and regional productions of Love Letters with her equally versatile spouse. These days, Dawber can be seen back on the boards at the Matrix Theatre, starring along with a talented ensemble i n Wendy MacLeod's The Water Children.

The high-profile play is currently enjoying its West Coast premiere, running in repertory with Yield of the Long Bond through July 17. Prolific producer Joe Stern and dedicated director Lisa James have assembled a cast that features Dawber, Sarah Bibb, Christopher Collett, JD Cullum, Christopher Gorham, Gregg Henry, Dave Higgins, Cindy Katz, Wendy Makkena, Marilyn Mclntyre, Don McManus, Claudette Nevins, Sara Rue, Billy Worley, Time Winters and Sarah Zinsser.

"When you do theatre, you feel like an actor again." - Pam Dawber

Dawber relates that the play presents quite a challenge for herself and her collaborators.

"This is a new play, so there's nothing really set. Lisa James, our director, is just great. She has a real vision.  There are something like 19 scene changes in this show. Yet my character, Megan, almost never leaves the stage. She literally is in one scene and then turns to another actor for the next scene. All of her transitions are right on the stage, except for a few moments when she leaves. So you're really on a journey with this woman.

"Megan is an upper-ended 30- ish actress who is no longer getting the roles. They're going to the younger girls. This is a woman whose life is dependent upon this business. But I think she's probably a bootstrap personality and just thinks, 'Allright so now what?' Her agent suggests commercials, saying, 'You're perfect. These people saw your tape, and they love you.' It ends up being a pro-life commercial, and immediately the girl says 'Forget it, are you crazy?' And her agent says, 'Hey, it's not you, it's the character. You're an actor, right?'

"In the very first scene, my character points out that she has had an abortion. The agent's response is. 'Well, who hasn't?' And she says. The point is, I got over it.'  And then she is told how much money these people have, and it's a lot!  So this pretty much suggests that she is most likely going to go on this audition, and fee play evolves from there.

"It's really about this woman's own journey into the past, into having had this abortion at 16, and now dealing with something she didn't think bothered her. And it examines the abortion issue on every level, from the extreme right to the far left to the wackos. This character kind of floats through the play mouthing other people's ideologies."

Although the script has plenty of serious moments, there is also much humor to be found in The Water Children.

"I don't know if the word 'dramedy' is exclusively a television or movie thing, but this play is a dramedy or serio-comedy. It's very serious subject matter, but presented with humor. It's a very thought-provoking piece. I don't think anyone will leave that theatre and go home without discussing what they saw. This really makes you question where you stand on the issue, but it's nice because it examines our American perspective oh this, as opposed to an Eastern sort of philosophy.

Dawber is also enjoying the patented Matrix policy of double-casting each role, allowing actors to work alongside different castmates at various rehearsals and performances.

"During rehearsal, we'll sit in the audience and Lisa will say, 'I need a Megan — Wendy, you get up. I need a Randall — okay, Gregg, you go up." And then she'll say, 'Now, Megans switch. Pam, you get up there with Gregg. Okay, Pam, you stay there, and now Don, you get up there.

"When you're not on stage, you sit and watch the other performers, and then you can say things like, 'When she crosses here...' For instance. Wendy Makkena and I have been discussing the very first scene of this play, which seems so easy, but it is not an easy scene. As in most shows, you're setting up a lot of stuff at the beginning. And for an actor, the lines are sort of negative, but you don't want her to be a negative character.

"So Lisa suggested. 'Let's get our 'multi-women' Marilyn and Claudette and improvise the scene.' That's one of the parts that's so wonderful about this process — you can have four actors and you can find the scene together. It's a scene we've been doing for weeks, but we're trying to find another attack on it."

She is having a wonderful time working with her castmates and technical crew, sharing stories and reveling in the theatrical sense of camaraderie. Of course, being married to an actor is another treat in itself. Dawber remembers her first encounter with her future husband, Harmon.

"Gina Hecht played Jeannie on Mork & Mindy. the second year when they brought in the deli and the whole thing. Years later she was doing plays, and she did a play with Mark. We had stayed friends, and she had decided that she figured out who the perfect girl was for Mark, but at that point I had a boyfriend. So she told me. 'I know the perfect guy for you if you ever break up.'

"Sure enough, about four months later, we broke up. And the day after the guy left, she called and set us up. Well. I didn't want to date anyone, and I didn't want another actor in my life. But it was the night of the Academy Awards, and he didn't even know they were on. so I thought. 'Wow!' and I asked him out to watch the Oscars. We got married a year to the day."

Despite their common love of acting, she and her husband have only worked together on one occasion so far.

"We would work together if the right project came our way. but mostly we get scripts where he's the abusive husband and I'm the abused wife. We did do Love Letters together. Believe me, we get scripts, but mostly they haven't been what we would want to do. We want a script that has some meal. We don't want to say, "Let's just work together for the heck of it."

Looking back at the start of her career. Dawber has the fondest of memories for her debut series Mork & Mindy, as do the multitudes of fans of the show.

"It has never gone away. I still get fan mail. I think, 'Maybe this is about a TV movie that I did, maybe this is about My Sister Sam.' But it's like. 'Sure love that Mindy, nanu-nanu, can I have a photo?" That show was like 20 years ago. But of course, most people would give their left ear to be in that kind of a hit.

"We had such a good time, and I love Robin. I cried when he won the Oscar [for Good Will Hunting earlier this year]. He was so surprised, and it was so deserved. Robin and I just get each other. We were very connected on that show."

Landing the role of Mindy opposite Williams was an unexpected surprise for the actress.

"This is one of those magic stories. The job came out of the air. it fell from the sky. My agent called me — I hadn't auditioned for the show, I hadn't heard of it. I had a one-year contract for another series with ABC. which I didn't get. and at the end of the year the casting director said. 'Have her do this pilot called Sister Terry.' I was playing a streetwise nun from New York — 'She used to be a gang leader and now she was a nun!'

"So I came out here to do the pilot, then I went back to my little log cabin in upstate New York. My agent called me to tell me Sister Terry didn't sell — thank God! — then a few days later he calls again, and says. "ABC announced their fall schedule, and on it is a Garry Marshall show starring Robin Williams and Pam Dawber about an alien who lives in his girlfriend's apartment.' That's how I found out. Garry gave me a tape so I could watch the genesis of the show on Happv Days, and I was in awe.

"Before Mork & Mindy, Robin and I had never done anything, we were brand new. 1 had done commercials, some musicals and one pilot, and Robin was a comedian. So we were babies. It was the end of the '70s — that time was so exciting. All of us came up then — you had all the Saturday Night Live people, and Tom Hanks two stages down, and all the Taxi crowd — Paramount was happening. So it was really a great time."

Working on My Sister Sam was a bittersweet experience, due to the tragic loss of her young co-star Rebecca Schaeffer But Dawber can look back and find positive recollections from those days.

"It was a different deal, a different time. My Sister Sam was years later. CBS offered me a deal after Mork & Mindy to develop my own show for them. And I naively thought. I'll take a year off, see what happens, and then develop a show.' Well, three years later, after hearing 150 script ideas, we hadn't found a show. I was everywhere with some sort of development deal, and scripts would come in. but we couldn't find the right one. Finally, the My Sister Sam idea clicked and we got it together.

"Mv Sister Sam was the victim of network politics, because we were the number 17 show, and then they canceled us. You know, at every level there are problems. As an actor, you hope you get an audition; you get the audition, then you hope you get the job; you get the job, and then you hope you keep the job; then you hope you get ratings; then you hope they don't cancel you. That's what makes actors nuts!"

Now that she has the opportunity to get back on stage, Dawber is relishing every minute of it.

"When you do theatre, you feel like an actor again. In films and television, you start doubting yourself at times. You'll be offered a role in a movie, and there's lines in two scenes. With a play, there's a lot more to do. And you realize, 'Hey. I do know what I'm doing. Guess what, I am in this business for a reason. I do like this. Now I remember."

"Back in the good old days, theatre was a training ground. There aren't training grounds anymore, really. I always tell young actors who want to be actors to go to New York. Go do it. go beat your feet on the street, go be miserable if that's what the city's going to make you. But you'll learn about life, and it will make you fuller and richer. Nothing like living in a city like that to give you experience. It's hard, and it can be lonely, and it can also be great."

Return to the list of Past Productions