It is hardly surprising that a show titled “Things to Do While Waiting for Your Abortion” is an issue play — but there are many worse fates, and the piece successfully avoids reduction to a morality play. With careful direction by Fei Liu ’03, it sidesteps — almost completely — the artificial scenes of reconciliation, compromise, and heartfelt grappling with big issues that are so reminiscent of those skits in middle school health class.

Given an inherently political topic, the script by playwright Saul Nadata ’01 script is studiously nonpartisan. Among the characters are a driven, impassioned doctor who performs abortions (Cotton Delo ’04), a rabid anti-abortion protester, and even a smorgasbord of potential patients — the high-powered yuppie, the middle-aged mother who is too old to bear more children, and the teenage rape victim.

Amidst this clash of ideologies and lifestyles sits Jane Rose-Hartwell (Lisa Barrett ’02), whose father runs the clinic and has drafted her to work as a receptionist for the summer. Barrett is pleasantly abrasive and funny as the teenage fence-sitter who worries that her vaguely pro-choice attitude makes her callous but wonders why her parents have bothered to rebuild their clinic — “They’ll just burn it down again.”

Jane’s attempts to compose an acceptable college essay serve as one of the framing devices of the show. The somewhat cliched philosophizing rhetoric inherent to that genre is a clever antidote to the pitfalls of melodramatic excesses of such a serious issue. The other device is equally effective: short excerpts from Beethoven, Shostakovich, Rachmaninoff, and others, between and sometimes during scenes.

Nadata seems anxious to unify the scenes into a comprehensive picture — but the characters’ arguments are enough to do that, without his help.

The women who don sunglasses and hats, or just duck into the building past the protesters, are looking for anonymity. But the frenzied right-to-lifers like Jimmy (Andrew Singer ’02), who believes that babies are being slaughtered, cannot leave them their privacy — beliefs that equate abortion with Nazi genocide render passivity impossible. Singer is brilliant as a demagogue. But he is equally compelling as the converse — the passive, drunkenly lackadaisical bum Jimmy, who reiterates again and again that he just wants to be left alone.

Dancing around these complex ideas — the morality of abortion, the right of activists to impose their passion on the passive — are the nervous, confused, unhappy patients themselves. Margaret (Tatiana Jitkoff ’03) can’t stop babbling; her fingers can’t stop fiddling with the little toys that some well-meaning person has left in the waiting room as busywork for anxious patients. Nancy (Annis Whitlow ’01) is an aggressive smoker, a “yuppie punk-ass imitation of feminism” who storms around, seemingly tense for no reason — except the obvious. Her chart carries a note explaining that she had her last abortion, eight weeks previously, to preserve her shape for the last few weeks of bathing-suit weather. Crystal (Jessica Kadis ’04), the slightly belligerent, pragmatic rape victim, and her supportive partner Rachel (Erica Pritzker ’03) seem more self-aware, but they, too, are suffering under the strain. “Nobody rational could go through with [an abortion],” Crystal says at one point.

The show transcends the specifics of the abortion battle in two ways.

First of all, it presents a snapshot of what can happen in any conflict — people get entrenched. It does not shrink from the cruelties that such tenaciousness drives people to. At least every few minutes, there’s a line whose harshness will surely offend someone: “Babies equal garbage” to abortion doctors, the protester claims.

But even as it deals with all of this heavy material, it’s genuinely funny. There’s the fishtank, which may or may not have any fish in it — let alone a fish named James Dean who commits suicide when his mate dies of fin rot. There’s Jane, who insists hailing post-procedure Burger King-bound patients with “Have a good burger!” And there’s the nurse (Christina Mitropoulou ’04), who complains to the tardy and profane Jane, “God, you’re vulgar in the morning.”

While it attacks a serious issue in a meaningful way, the play’s ultimate success lies in its refusal to copy the aggressive attitudes of its characters. Instead it refuses to impose on its audience, leaving not just food, but also room, for thought.

Things to Do while Waiting for Your Abortion

Friday at 8 p.m. and Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m.

Nick Chapel