“The Good Adoptee,” an award-winning drama from the acclaimed playwright Suzanne Bachner, is making its West Coast debut at 2 p.m. on Feb. 9 at Mercer Island’s Stroum Jewish Community Center (SJCC).
For the center, bringing the themes as investigated in the drama — namely the exploration of one’s identity — to the Eastside has long been among its primary interests.
In 2018, Pamela Lavitt, the director of Arts + Ideas and Festivals at the SJCC, saw “Three Identical Strangers” at the Seattle International Film Festival. The Oscar-shortlisted documentary tells the story of identical triplets of Jewish heritage adopted from the New York City-based Louise Wise Agency. They were separated at birth, but found each other by happenstance as young adults in the 1980s. This then led them to look into their shared history, which turned out to be an arduous, painful experience. Its impact was huge on New York City native Lavitt, who is also a parent of twins.
When she went to an Association of Performing Arts Professionals (APAP) event last year, she had the movie in mind as she scouted for smaller-scale, thematically rich shows to bring to Mercer Island. There, Lavitt became acquainted with “The Good Adoptee,” a one-actor show about an adopted woman searching for her birth parents and digging into her background.
“The story was deeply compelling and beautifully performed,” Lavitt said. “I did not realize at the time that it was the playwright’s story.”
Emotional detective story
In promotional items, the autobiographical “The Good Adoptee” has been described as an emotional detective story. To the adopted Bachner, who worked on the at one time seven-hour, three-part play as she herself was looking into her history, the play unfolds like a mystery in that its viewers watch as its heroine journeys into her past, hitting obstacles along the way and uncertain of the outcomes.
“You’re with the character — or the “me” character — on the search,” Bachner said. “When I was doing the search, it was, in life, very isolating and scary and terrifying and exciting. I was obsessed about it. And most adoptees who do this get like this.”
Many people, while familiar with the nuances of adoption in some respects, might not realize the struggles faced by adoptees over the decades. Aside from the difficult psychological experience of growing up around people without comparable attributes — like something as simple as a similar-sounding laugh between family members — not as commonly known realities are explored in the play. It addresses how splintered adoptee rights have been over the years, and how difficult it has been to get one’s hands on pivotal personal files.
It isn’t the first time Bachner has incorporated adoption into her work, but its memoir-like style demarcates a shift.
“My generation, in particular, is in this strange limbo period of the laws having caught up to where we are with technology and culture and the way we embrace information and identity,” Bachner said, adding that only recently, a bill granting adoptees the right to have access to their original birth certificates for the first time since 1935 was passed.
“New York was so draconian on that count, and it was so stuck for so many years,” she said.
Bachner said something she seeks to do with the show is have a non-adopted person empathize with someone who has, inviting them to think about what it might be like to be plucked from your lineage, regardless of how positive one’s adoptive life has been.
Prolific actor Hayley Palmer is the second performer to populate the lead role in “The Good Adoptee.” According to Bachner, Palmer is so good in the part that she makes her feel as though she’s back in the room, doing her search. Though Palmer and Bachner had worked together in some capacity before, this is the first time they’ve collaborated on a work of “The Good Adoptee” scale.
Palmer, in addition to performing, is also a faculty member of the American Musical and Dramatic Academy’s (AMDA) voice production and speech department and a teacher at the University of California. She said she fell in love with “The Good Adoptee” immediately.
“It was incredible to learn so much about the experience and what it’s like to actually go through this experience of searching,” Palmer said, adding, “I was blown away by how much I didn’t know. A lot of people don’t know how little rights adoptees have had to access their own information. It’s kind of an emotional roller coaster, a gripping story.”
Palmer had never before worked on a one-person play. It presented what she describes as “a really wonderful challenge.” Although the memorization required by the part was daunting, and while there were facets of preparation that surprised her, she said she’s grown as an actor as a result.
“There are many moments where after I do the show, people will come to me and they think that this is my story, even though it’s really clear in the program that it’s written by Suzanne, which to me is a tremendous compliment,” Palmer said. “That’s what we’re trying to do, is that it really feels like I’m stepping into the shoes of Suzanne’s experience here.”
“The Good Adoptee” is one of three plays encompassing the SJCC’s “Shpiel” theater series. Other works include a December 2019 staged reading of the immigrant/refugee resettlement-focused “Eight Nights” and a three-act period piece called “Arrivals.” Each has attached a discussion forum seeking to deepen related conversations about societal and social-justice challenges.
“The Good Adoptee” will be bookended by a Question and Answer session with Bachner, Palmer and adoption experts. Lavitt said that currently the SJCC is trying to build a theater audience on Mercer Island.
“I really feel that theater creates sustained education opportunities… It’s a much more internal experience, and theater has an incredible opportunity for live engagement and enrichment,” she said.
Bachner hopes that after watching “The Good Adoptee,” non-adopted audience members will gain a new understanding, and that adoptees connect with its story, in spite of its personal specificities.
“There’s such a dominant rainbow-and-unicorns narrative around adoption that is really from the point of view of adoptive parents and the industry, which is making millions and trillions of dollars and not addressing the trauma that occurs from birth parents’ relinquishing of their children and from adoptees growing up in and living this,” Bachner said. “Adoption is not really a transactional event — it’s a lifelong thing. I wasn’t adopted once — I’m still an adopted person, and all of those things work at me all the time.”
For more information about the show, go to the SJCC website (https://bit.ly/2QWYAbr).