Life, death and aftermath

Horizons Theatre Company is the longest running women’s theater company in the country. Established in 1977 by (among others) artistic director Leslie Jacobson – chair of GW’s Department of Theatre and Dance – and the film and stage actor Robert Prosky (“Mrs. Doubtfire”), the company has presented the District with professional dramatics of a different stripe. Jacobson has dedicated herself and her company to staging productions by and about women.

In a recent Hatchet interview, Jacobson shed some light on the impact the company has had on her and on the city, as well as how directing the play “Unspoken Prayers” (running through April 11) has changed her life.

“We started Horizons Theatre Company as a continuation of the feminist theater that began in the late 1970s,” Jacobson said. “I grew up during a time when men’s and women’s roles were set before them. The men were the breadwinners and the women stayed home to take care of the household and take care of the children. Sending your children to daycare was bad parenting, and only considered for economic reasons. But as the years went on, gender roles changed. Today, it’s just the reverse – sending your children to preschool and daycare is the norm, and both parents usually have to work. A woman’s role has changed over time, and because of it, so has a man’s. Women and men both shape society.”

Jacobson was one of the pioneers in her field, having experienced the blurring of the gender roles just out of college.

“When I started directing in D.C., I was told by producers that I was the first woman director they’d ever hired,” she said. “That’s why I saw the need for a company like ours. We do view ourselves as a woman’s theater, which can be political at times, but not exclusively. We promote women’s experiences on stage and, by association, men’s as well. Our mission is an opportunity, not a straitjacket.”

The latest production at Horizons Theatre Company is “Unspoken Prayers” by Claudia Allen.

It is a heartbreaking but open work that deals with a difficult sub “Unspoken Prayers” puts the story of a mother and father whose lives are wracked by the rape and murder of their 16-year-old daughter into focus in a way that is intended to strike both histrionic and realistic chords. Set in December 2002, Billie and Frank’s daughter is accosted and killed on her way home from a high school Christmas pageant rehearsal. The perpetrator is apprehended and brought to justice, and the family members find themselves in a deeper quandary upon the discovery that he is 16 years old as well. The family spends the subsequent months coping with their loss and struggling with the concept of having their daughter’s killer executed. By employing the prism of viewpoints from such variegated characters, “Unspoken Prayers” is less a polemic than it is a series of colloquies that broach the subject of the death penalty without harping on it.

“It’s extremely well-written, first of all. But it addresses both a national and a personal issue so beautifully, which is why we wanted to stage it,” Allen explains. “In it, the mother isn’t just a victim bent on revenge. She visits death row to get the experience of what it’s like as a visitor and a prisoner. She wants to know what it’s like sending someone to his ultimate demise. These aren’t stock situations, and the characters are faced with unimaginable dilemmas. The question that it leaves me with are: how does a family survive this personal tragedy? There isn’t a pat answer. Life doesn’t give us pat answers. How this family will or will not stay together is where the drama is. It’s a naturalistic play, and yet it also reminds me of a Greek tragedy. It presents the daily life of a middle-class family, but it adds to this a great, almost mythical moral dilemma. It is about crisis, and how we react and cope.”

“Unspoken Prayers” is currently playing at Horizons Theatre Company through April 11 at the Hand Chapel on GW’s Mount Vernon campus. For more information call (703) 578-1100.

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