To The Moon: An issue play about domestic violence

“To The Moon” begins with scenes of Jackie Gleason as Ralph Kramden  in “The Honeymooners” showing his fist to Audrey Meadows as his wife Alice (“To the moon, Alice”), and ends some two hours later with what most abused women surveyed say was the first joke about domestic violence they ever heard:

“What do you tell a woman with two black eyes?”
“Nothing, you already told her twice.”

In-between, Beth Kander has fashioned a play that’s no joke — a “docu-drama,” we are told, that is based on over 200 surveys and 20 in-person interviews with survivors of domestic violence.

The play  was live for two performances this weekend, and will return on demand online March 15 to April 11 via Creede Repertory Theater of Colorado.

Initially, seven characters (portrayed by professional actors) in effect introduce themselves one by one in monologues that are constructed as if they’re talking to an off-screen interviewer:

“It’s not that I don’t trust you or anything,” says one woman. “It’s more like the other people you’re probably talking to for this… I mean. I don’t know if my story even counts.”

Then she says she was a dancer working as a waitress, and she started dating the handsome bartender. They seemed to have a lot in common; they had fun together; then one time, after hours of drinking together, “he says ‘I’m an alcoholic.’ ‘yeah me too,’” she says cheerfully.

The story pauses, as we switch to the next woman, who explains that she’s an accomplished MD/PhD …”I’m not saying any of this to be boastful… I want to tear down the whole idea of being too smart for anything like this to happen to you or too rich or too successful.”

And so it goes – we meet the daughter of Christian missionaries, an elderly Jew,  a busy noncitizen mother, a black woman, a trans woman – each telling us who they are, and just hinting at the trauma they will soon detail.

Then, we see an illustration of a house, with each of the women occupying a different window in the house, and they talk about how much more important stories are than statistics; they talk about how “one girl” (presumably Anne Frank) could break your heart in ways that just hearing about the killing of “six million Jews” cannot. 

Afterwards, we hear the horror stories of abuse in detail, again one monologue at a time.

Woven into their stories are general observations  about domestic abuse, e.g.

“At some point it’s a question some of us bring up in our own story: Why didn’t they just leave? Well, on behalf of all of us let me share a few things with you about leaving and why it’s even harder than you might think. It’s not just about being in denial or staying for the kids or truly loving your abuser although all of those things can be true and are no small thing. It’s not just about the person being harmed….For almost anyone being abused,  there is shame – their own but also what’s baked into our culture: Keep a stiff upper lip, turn the other cheek, make it work — way more platitudes about sticking something out rather than acknowledging something is broken.”

 “To The Moon” is the kind of issue play created to raise awareness, and to let people realize they are not alone – that they can take action, if action is needed to get out of their situation….Throughout the video, there appears the contact info for the   National Domestic Violence Hotline 800-799-SAFE (7233) 

But the allusion right in the middle of the play  to “The Diary of Anne Frank,” which was adapted into a stage play for Broadway in 1955, did prompt me to compare the two dramatizations as works of theater.

It would be hard to call  “The Diary of Anne Frank” an issue play.  It’s a play about characters we get to know and care about . But it is indeed hard to walk out of the theater at the end without feeling we have come to understand on a gut and ground level some of the horror of the Holocaust. 

In a playwright’s note in the program of “To The Moon,”  Beth Kander talks about the characters in her play and “the dozens of real survivors who inspired their creation.” Does this mean the women we meet (unlike Anne Frank and her family) are composites?  (If so, perhaps it’s to protect the real women’s safety.)

By the end of the play, we’ve heard from eight characters,  roughly ten to fifteen minutes apiece. The reason for this diverse and diffuse dramatis personae is surely to emphasize the wide range of people who experience domestic abuse. But, along the way, something else is emphasized as well, as illustrated by one of the characters who stops herself in the middle of talking about how she plays Mahjong. “You didn’t come [to hear this.]  You came for the ugly stories.” It’s a perhaps unavoidable trap of an issue play based on interviews and survey data that the women whom these characters are supposed to embody are surely more than their ugly stories.

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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