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Vials of pee and the fight against misogyny: Contemporary Theater Company’s Predictor tells a 1960s story that resonates today

(Predictor cast from L to R) Amina Cunningham, Carson Pavao, Stephen Fox, Chelsea Mitchell, Neil Mott, Steph Rodger (below), Tina Moore. (Photo: Maggie Cady)

Ah, the sixties. We had flared pants, student anti-war protests, and the state’s authoritarian grip on bodily autonomy. Of course, there are also some differences between now and then. For instance, back then if you thought you might be pregnant, you had to go to the (male) doctor’s office with your husband (obviously you had to be married to be pregnant), where your urine sample would be sent to a lab for analysis by (male) scientists. The results could arrive in anywhere from two weeks to a month. If you were unmarried or couldn’t afford a visit to the doctor, that knowledge about what was happening in your own body was completely out of reach.

Amidst this cultural backdrop, graphic designer Margaret Crane started work as a freelancer at pharmaceutical company Organon in New Jersey. There she saw pregnancy tests performed in the lab. Add some sheep’s blood to a vial of urine, wait, and watch for a red circle to appear – indicating pregnancy. When she saw how simple the process was, she asked herself a question that would change her life and the lives of millions: “Why can’t we do that at home?”

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Up until she set the record straight in 2012 after the New York Times omitted her work in their feature about the origin of the home pregnancy test, it wasn’t widely known Crane was the original inventor. Now, her work is being acknowledged with the Smithsonian’s acquisition of her first prototype and in a new play by Jennifer Blackmer about Crane’s story. The Contemporary Theater Company’s production of Predictor follows Crane’s remarkable story, the development of her design, and the fierce opposition she faced bringing this revolutionary tool into the world.

Crane’s patented design for the “Diagnostic Test Device”

The structure of the play allows the audience to feel intimately connected with Crane through a collection of interior scenes. We see her memories, her internal dialogue, and the humorous self-deprecating game show that plays in all our heads (right?). We see her fighting to be heard by everyone from her strict Catholic mother to her male bosses and colleagues at Organon. We also see the figures who supported Crane, like her forward-thinking grandmother who helped her attend college and her artist roommate Jody who convinced her to “follow her muse.”

The cast portrays the many changes in character and timeline well. As the people around her fluidly shift, the show is anchored by Chelsea Mitchell as Meg Crane. Mitchell’s face conveys frustration in a way that words alone cannot – expressive eyes rolling as she is repeatedly mistaken for a secretary and impassioned groans of protest at the injustice of it all.

A righteous rage permeates the performance, but there are also many moments of levity. There are commercial parody songs, jokes, and some well-placed urinalysis puns. Overall, Predictor is a deeply human story. You’ll find yourself cheering on our protagonist as she fights hard and ultimately makes choices for the greater good. It was beautiful to witness Crane’s point of view – which long languished in obscurity – performed for a packed audience of all ages and genders.

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While quite a lot has changed since 1967, many of Crane’s experiences were maddeningly relatable in 2024. Men continue to ignore women’s contributions (until the same idea is voiced by another man), employers continue to squeeze full-time work out of freelancers with no benefits, and Americans’ reproductive rights continue to be threatened.

In the bathroom during intermission, I chatted with women in their forties, sixties, and eighties. There was talk of illegal abortions decades ago (once again illegal in many states) and being denied jobs they were qualified for “because it would take the job away from a man.”

One woman spoke of her mother’s experience working at a hospital where all female employees had a strict dress code that didn’t apply to the men. She took the issue to the ACLU and won a workplace discrimination lawsuit. “You win and lose,” she added, since of course this lawsuit impacted her mother’s own continued employment. There was certainly a sense of winning and losing – for Meg Crane and for women in general.

The April 27 preview of Predictor concluded with a treat for the audience. Meg Crane was in attendance! After the show, CTC general manager and Predictor director Maggie Cady led an audience talkback with the designer. 

Crane was encouraged by seeing men and women in the audience. She urged men to take the fight for reproductive health and autonomy seriously, to make it their fight, too. “I’m glad to see so many men here because I’m getting very worried about what’s happening today with women’s rights. I really want all the men here to work hard to make sure those are not taken away.”

Many in the audience wondered, “What kept you going when there were so many obstacles in your way?” In response, Crane spoke about the importance of putting knowledge about our own bodies in our own hands. I recalled what her character said in the play, as she steeled herself to keep fighting: “It’s not about me.” A sentiment reiterated toward the end of the evening, when an older woman in the audience said, “I hope things keep changing, and I hope one day someone asks you [young women] the same question. How did you keep going in 2024 with so much working against you?”

Nearly six decades ago, Crane recognized the importance of putting this test into the hands of the people who needed it. The “muse” that bolstered her along the way represents everyone who ever has and ever will hold their destiny in that little piece of plastic – at home, in private. Thanks to Predictor, we have the chance to stand up and applaud her for sharing that power with us.

Predictor is now running Fridays and Saturdays at 7pm through May 18, with one Sunday matinee on May 12 at 2pm. Get tickets at contemporarytheatercompany.com.