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In Performance: turning the agony of infertility into art

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One afternoon just after Robert Howard and his wife, Andi, finished having sex, she swung her legs up over her head. "Hold them there for 20 minutes," she ordered. Baffled, he did as directed, watching television over his shoulder when he got bored.

"I didn't know what was going on with the legs," he says, "but part of me thought it was funny, so later I wrote it all down." It was the spring of 1993 and the couple--both attorneys--had been married for a year and a half, and they decided it was time to have a baby. "If the woman holds her legs up like that," says Howard, "gravity gives the sperm a better chance of making it to the egg." It was light duty compared to the trials the couple would go through in their three-year battle with infertility, the saga of which he recounts in his debut one-man show, The Swinger.

A year and many leg hoists later Andi still hadn't conceived. A trip to the doctor revealed that her estrogen level was too low to produce strong, healthy eggs.

Howard took the news hard. "I watched her with other people's kids," he says. "I saw she was meant to be a mom. Not having kids meant my wife vanishing on me."

Andi started on a regimen of ever-increasing doses of Clomid--injected by her husband--and endured seven months of abdominal pain, weight gain, and mood swings. No luck. They switched to another specialist, and another drug, to no avail. Both husband and wife spiraled into depression. Compounding the agony was their self-imposed isolation--they had agreed to tell no one of their dilemma, including family or close friends. "I'm a very secretive person anyway," he says. "And my wife was just, well, ashamed." (As a courtesy to her, he doesn't perform under his real surname--Howard is his middle name.)

They tried artificial insemination--eight or nine times. When that didn't work either, the doctor started talking about in vitro. "I couldn't even take my mind there," says Howard. "We were told that once you get to that point, it's not gonna happen. To think my wife wasn't gonna be a mom was horrendous to me." Throughout it all, to deal with his depression, he wrote.

Howard always wanted to be a performer. But growing up in Northbrook in the 60s, his biggest gig was the dinner table. "I was a hit at Passover," he says. "But I was too chicken to do anything more." He earned a degree in 1987 from John Marshall Law School and, tapping his previously untouched bar mitzvah money, opened an office in Greektown that same year. After advertising on Spanish-language television, he began serving Latino clients almost exclusively, taking on everything from traffic tickets to immigration cases to murder.

In 1996 the couple finally conceived--twins. (Their third child was born in 2001, "the old-fashioned way.") By that time, Howard had compiled his infertility-inspired writings into a manuscript, titled "Tell God Your Plan--And He'll Have a Good Laugh." "I've got the 375 rejected copies under my bed," he says. "I couldn't give it away. But writing the book was just another cop-out. I didn't want to write a book. I wanted to perform." Finally one afternoon last February he got up on the stage in Live Bait's Bucket theater and auditioned for an audience of one: Brigid Murphy. He hoped she'd take him under his wing and help him develop a monologue based on his story.

She hated it.

"It was all this shtick--funny voices, big characters," says Murphy. "There wasn't much honesty. If he'd done that play, after a half an hour everyone in the audience would have ended up hating him."

"I wrote that play to avoid telling the real story, to avoid telling how it all felt," Howard says. But the last scene caught Murphy's attention. "I talk about the park behind my house which is always full of kids. I'd give my wife a shot, there were the kids. It was haunting. Brigid sat up and listened."

Murphy signed on as director and producer, working intensively with Howard to write and shape the piece. The resulting 50-minute show, a mix of confessional monologue and stand-up comedy, follows every squeamish, absurd twist in the couple's attempt to become pregnant.

"Brigid showed me how to get to the point," Howard says. "And I'll tell you, because of that I'm winning more now as a lawyer. Instead of making a closing argument in twelve minutes, I make it in three."

Andi's not totally comfortable with her husband's newfound metier. "She's much more private than I am," says Howard. "I'm the one who chose to put this in the public realm, and she's being so good for letting me do it.

"We took this unbelievable journey together," he adds. "When you're giving someone a shot in the you-know-what, it brings a whole new meaning to the word love."

The Swinger opens Thursday, June 17, at Live Bait Theater, 3914 N. Clark, and runs through July 3, with performances Thursday through Sunday at 8 PM. Tickets are $10; call 773-871-1212.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.

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