Annie -- Wendy Rich Stetson's character in In the Next Room -- is a midwife, but when the actress started searching for stories about midwives from the play's timeframe, the 1880s, she didn't find much. She also didn't find much about midwives in upstate New York, where the play takes place.
Instead, she found Orlean Puckett. "I was looking for stuff on Amazon.com," Stetson said during a rehearsal break this week, "and I found this book calledOrlean Puckett: The Life of a Mountain Midwife. Orlean lived in Appalachia, from the mid-19th to the mid-20th centuries. She gave birth to 24 babies, but lost every one of them. She became a midwife in her 50s, and delivered babies until just before her death, at age 94."
Stetson's character is not from a family as large as Puckett's would have been, had her babies survived, but we do learn in the play that Annie is the oldest of a large brood. "She's in her late 30s, but she's been taking care of people for decades," Stetson commented. "She grew up on a farm. In creating her back story, I've wondered whether there might not have been a minister somewhere in her family, because Annie learned Greek."
I told Stetson that I was surprised she didn't run across more histories of midwifery in the 19th century; it seems a natural subject not just for feminist historians but for historians of American medical science. "I was surprised, too," Stetson replied. "When Quincy [Tyler Bernstine, who plays the play's wet nurse, Elizabeth] was researching her character, she apparently found material about wet nurses in the 19th century. But most of the books about midwifery cover a more contemporary time span."
But back to Mrs. Puckett. According to Stetson, "One of more colorful details in Orlean's assisting at a long labor was when she would ask the doctor, 'Should we feather her?' Apparently, Orlean would run a burnt goose feather under the nostrils of the pregnant woman. This would induce sneezing and coughing, and supposedly help bring on that last - or next-to-last - push."
BRENDAN LEMON is the American theater critic for the Financial Timesand the editor of lemonwade.com.