With it being Women’s History Month, there’s no time like the present for History Theatre’s production of Watermelon Hill. A story based off of the book Shadow Mothers by Linda Back McKay, the script by Lily Barber Cole focuses on three young women at the Catholic Infant Home in St Paul in 1965. The women are not here entirely by choice – they have been persuaded, either by their families or their circumstances – to disappear from the lives they know until they conceive the children they are carrying out of wedlock. All three women share a dorm and have the same due dates, causing them to bond together even though they don’t know each others real names and are forbidden to talk about their lives outside of the home. Through various conversations, flashbacks, dreams, and monologues, their stories unfold nonetheless and a striking, painful image of three young women judged by their circumstances of being unwed mothers unfolds. Leah (Aeysha Kinnunen) has come here at the persuasion of her mother, who doesn’t want her daughter’s college career to be “ruined” by a baby conceived by Leah’s boyfriend. Sharon (Adelin Phelps) has fled a dominating parent and is worried about being behind in high school when she returns, pining after a boyfriend who has never tried to get in touch with her. Joan (Emily Gunyo Halaas) hides the circumstances of how she came to be pregnant and uses a biting sense of humor and her Jewish upbringing to combat against the repressive atmosphere of the home.
Despite the heaviness of the story, the show is full of humor. As the three girls bond together over White Castles, Leah’s radio, religious confusion, and shared experiences, they create their own support group as they struggle through pregnancies with children they know they will be forced to give up. They fight to control what happens to their children, lying about the fathers so that their babies have a better chance of being put in good homes and struggle to maintain relationships they have left behind or will be forced to give up – such as their own bonds between one another.
Poignant and touching, this play deals with issues of religion, feminism and control over the bodies of women, sexual education, and adoption. As the church’s negative view of unwed mothers weighs down upon Leah, Sharon, and Joan, problems with the adoption system and its view of women in general become revealed. The amazing talent in the cast, along with great support from Janet Hayes Trow and Sean Dillion (who play various characters throughout the play), creates a strong story of loss, friendship, and support. The wonderful minimalist set with clever nuances plays to the starkness of the situation but allows the characters to warm to one another. The use of lighting and sound design is wonderfully woven into the flashbacks and dream sequences, especially in one terrifying moment in which Joan recalls the circumstances of her pregnancy.
Admittedly, this show is not easy to watch at times. The frustration of how broken the system of adoption is and the treatment of young pregnant women is difficult to bear. A particular scene in the second act is especially triggering, especially for those who have experienced sexual violence. The relevance of this show, however, cannot be understated. One young patron in the audience commented on her way out that it reminded her of the line from Mean Girls: “If you have sex, you will get pregnant and die.” Combined with recent arguments about abortion, birth control, and lack of proper sex ed in schools, the themes in Watermelon Hill are incredibly relevant to the lives of modern women and, in some ways, I wish the show went further to address these issues, as it is a revival of a past production. Perhaps its purpose, though, is to focus its lens on a particular scope of the 1960s and continue a conversation that has been going on for decades. It is left to the audience to do something with the frustrations they might be feeling or the questions they might have and take action themselves.
Watermelon Hill is written by Lily Barber Cole and directed by Anya Kremenetsky. It is playing now through April 10th at the History Theatre in St. Paul. Ticket prices and information can be found on the History Theatre’s website.