It was yet another emotional occurrence Friday at the new Phoenix Theatre Cultural Centre when I attended “The Pill,” the inaugural production on the 75-seat, cabaret-style, black-box Frank & Katrina Basile Stage. I had hoped to review Phoenix playwright-in-residence Tom Horan’s world-premiere work on its May 18 opening night, but due to my recovery from a recent surgery, I wasn’t physically up to it. However, the delay certainly did not diminish the experience. Just like when I saw “God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater,” I felt a profound sense of pride and satisfaction at having been a Phoenix Theatre founding board member, actor and reviewer during its 35-year history.
And what better way for the Phoenix to commence this newest chapter of its storied history while reinforcing its mission to explore weighty social issues? “The Pill,” a historical drama, a genre in which Horan excels, is a play about the invention of oral contraception, the most important development in women’s rights in the 20th century. In the aftermath of the #MeToo movement and the national Women’s March, it’s a work that holds special significance, not just for women, but anyone who embraces equality. Told with humor, poignancy and passion, Horan’s fascinating story details how women’s reproductive rights activist Margaret Sanger, the feisty founder of the birth control movement, enlisted International Harvester heiress Katharine McCormick to finance the pill’s development—an inspired collaboration forged between the two women, research scientist Gregory Pincus and Catholic gynecologist Dr. John Rock.
And who better to direct Horan’s engaging history lesson than actor and Meisner Acting Technique instructor Bill Simmons? A true Renaissance man, he also happens to be the Phoenix’s capital campaign manager— the individual who oversaw the fundraising effort that resulted in the construction of the new facility. Simmons’ creativeness at staging, especially within the context of the show’s in-the-round configuration and his gift of bringing out the best in actors’ performances, not to mention the quality of the script itself, were clearly evident.
As far as the ensemble, Simmons’ sharp eye for talent and gift for casting was also obvious in his selection of the five extraordinarily versatile actors who tell the story. They include Jen Johansen as stoic and “handsome” Dr. John Rock, Jan Lucas-Grimm as visionary philanthropist Katharine McCormick, Constance Macy as tenacious and fearless Margaret Sanger, Arianne Villareal as the quirky and brilliant Dr. Pincus and Jenni White as sympathetic everywoman Sadie Sachs.
Making the most of the new Basile-named venue, which may well be my new favorite intimate space in Indy, are the imaginative contributions of scenic designer M.S. Pikey, Laura Glover who created the magical lighting and playwright Horan, who also designed the show’s effective sound score. Completing the illusion of the setting and era were Sara Gable’s costumes and Danielle Buckel’s often-clever properties.
As previously noted, seeing the Phoenix’s 401st production in its new venue— the first theatre to be built in Indy in 100 years— was indeed a momentous experience. Not only has my professional and personal history been deeply intertwined with that of the Phoenix, as a writer, I have had the rare opportunity of reporting and commenting on its entire body of work. I cannot wait to see what unfolds during this newest chapter in the Phoenix’s esteemed saga. Of one thing I am fairly certain, like “The Pill,” whatever I happen to see there in the future will not be safe or pedestrian.
“The Pill” runs through June 10. For tickets call (317) 635-7529 or visit phoenixtheatre.org.