By John Thomason
Every emotion associated with pregnancy and pending parenthood is present in the 95 minutes of Hannah Manikowski’s smart and promising play Compensation. In fact, most of them appear on the playbill cover photo for Island City Stage’s world-premiere production, an image that encapsulates the disconnected expectations that propel the drama.
At the center is surrogate mother Tara (Gaby Tortoledo), her hands over her midsection and the fetal heartbeat thumping underneath it, her expression one of ambivalence bordering on concern. To her right is the beaming Elliott (Israel Vinas), ardent spear-header of the surrogacy arrangement, as radiant as any pregnant mother. To her left is Elliott’s longtime husband Gabe (Stephen Kaiser), stoic and pensive as a Renaissance thinker, literally looking down on the entire business. These are the humans, fragile and flawed and, who navigate the slippery ethical calculus of Manikowski’s issue-centric play, one that addresses reproductive autonomy and the challenges of same-sex conception with fresh insights.
The characters find each other, like everybody does, online. Elliott, as if driven by the ticking of his own biological clock, has joined a surrogacy-seeking website, jumping with both feet into the idea of having a child with a stranger, albeit using his sister’s eggs. Tara, unusually youthful for a surrogate—at 24, she’s more than 10 years younger than the guys—is quick to connect, winning Elliott over with her impressive resume (journalism degree from Oberlin) and dedication to the spiritual, as well as monetary, gain of bringing a new life into the world.
Their initial meeting in Elliott and Gabe’s house, over liquor, Jenga and Gabe’s superlative culinary skills, cements the partnership, and a couple of scenes later, Tara’s pregnancy test reads positive. Yet only Elliott, all in to a fault, appears thrilled by the news, and it is only a matter of time until Tara’s backstory unravels, and secrets are revealed.
Los Angeles-based playwright Manikowski has penned three characters with varying degrees of relatable baggage, whether it’s Tara’s crippling lack of self-worth, Elliott’s overeager naivety or Gabe’s sculpted emotional repression. Where Compensation most falters is in the therapeutic tidiness of the conclusion, an unnecessary denouement that undercuts its more effectively lacerating moments.
The truth is, neither the play nor the production is as well-oiled as it could be. Some of Manikoswki’s language rolls clunkily off the tongue. The actors, whose gestures and tones accurately channel the play’s subtext, occasionally slip out of the veritable pocket, and more than a few times revert to reciting lines—anticipating their next retort rather than reacting in the moment. The luxury of an extra week of rehearsals likely would have gone a long way; the pressure of acting during a pandemic surely didn’t help either.
Compensation is Island City Stage’s first multi-character, in-theater play since COVID, and Artistic Director Andy Rogow says he selected it, in part, because of its manageability as an intimate, small-cast enterprise with a minimum of technical expense. This restraint shows somewhat in Ardean Landhuis’s set design, a handsome enough middle-class living room and kitchenette for Elliott and Gabe, but a generic interior doesn’t reflect the characters’ financial well-being as mentioned in the script. David Hart’s sound design deftly mixes ambient background cues, including brief snippets of The Princess Bride and a Dean Martin song, with more prominent audio clips, including voicemails from an uncredited Laura Turnbull as Tara’s estranged mother.
Frankly, Island City Stage could have mounted a dramatic reenactment of a school board meeting, and I would have attended, as these theatre-starved months have left us all craving the electricity that only this unique storytelling medium can provide. Compensation is a welcome and thought-provoking return to what normal used to feel like.
Compensation runs through Feb. 20 at Island City Stage at Wilton Theatre Factory, 2304 N. Dixie Highway, Wilton Manors. The running time is 90 minutes. Tickets run $35. Audiences are socially distanced and required to wear face coverings for the duration of the play. Online performances, running Feb. 19-28, are available on a “name your price” basis. Call (954) 928-9800 or visit islandcitystage.org.
Island City’s “Compensation” Pregnant With Potential
By John Thomason