Physical pain, relentless and undeniable, throbs like a bass line in “Behind the Sheet,” the deeply affecting new historical drama by Charly Evon Simpson at Ensemble Studio Theater. Sometimes it takes the audible, metaphoric form of a hammered drum. And every now and then a scream, quickly muffled, lances the air.

But for the most part, agony holds its tongue in this meticulously assembled story of a dark chapter in medical experimentation. Like its core of heroines — plantation slave women used as gynecological guinea pigs in the South of the 1840s — “Behind the Sheet,” which opened on Thursday night, resists the natural urge to shout in righteous defiance.

Instead, as directed with Olympian calm by Colette Robert, the production takes on cumulative power in its steady, cleareyed depiction of a time when it was a given that pain would be borne uncomplainingly by human beings regarded as chattel. That “some things are just the way they are,” as one character says, becomes a stoic’s creed for survival.

What the young black women portrayed here have to survive includes repeated vaginal surgeries — as many as 30 — performed without anesthetic. “Behind the Sheet” was inspired by the career of J. Marion Sims, an American physician and plantation owner known as “the father of modern gynecology” (and a figure whose commemorative statue was recently removed from Central Park, as we’re reminded in an onstage postscript).

Sims pioneered an ultimately successful technique for sewing vaginal fistulas, acquired during difficult childbirths, through experimentation on slave women he owned or bought from other plantations. It is a subject that would seem to lend itself to sensationalism and horrified indignation.

But Ms. Simpson and Ms. Robert understand that sometimes discretion can be the better part of power. “Behind the Sheet” doesn’t have the electrifying conceptual bravado of other recent works about the legacy of slavery, like Branden-Jacob Jenkins’s “An Octoroon” or this season’s astonishing “Slave Play” by Jeremy O. Harris.

This is, for the most part, a straightforward, conventional work that is not above plying the clichés of scientific breakthrough dramas of yesteryear, right down to a “eureka” moment of unexpected inspiration. But the context, in this case, casts shifting, unsettling light on such classic elements.

At the play’s center are two figures. George (Joel Ripka) is a physician transplanted from Philadelphia to Alabama who has been gifted a small plantation by the prosperous family of his wife (Megan Tusing). Philomena (the excellent Naomi Lorrain) is his wife’s servant, who doubles, chores permitting, as George’s invaluable assistant. She is also heavily pregnant with his child when the play begins.

Again, this sounds like the stuff of the fervid melodrama that Mr. Jacobs-Jenkins parodied in “An Octoroon.” But what’s so canny about “Behind the Sheet” is its awareness that there is nothing shocking about such domestic arrangements in the time and place where it is set.

Everything that happens here is predicated on its characters’ matter-of-fact acceptance of a status quo that now seems beyond comprehension or tolerance. As Philomena says to another slave, Lewis (Shawn Randall), who fantasizes about freedom, “How does someone imagine that when they’ve never experienced it?”

The education of Philomena gives the play its moral structure, which parallels and intersects with the more familiar arc of a maverick scientist’s progress. Only 19 when the play begins, Philomena is a woman of self-contained poise and intelligence.

Acting as a liaison and troubleshooter between George and the increasing number of slave women who become his patients and subjects, she knows she has it good. She feels sympathy, slightly detached, for the others, whose surgeries she witnesses firsthand.

But despite the precise and horrible catalog of side effects of these women’s conditions — lacerating scars, burning seepage, an abiding stench they try to disguise with homemade perfumes — she doesn’t really understand what they are going through. Then she has her own disastrous experience of giving birth, and her role in George’s house — and his life — is altered forever.

Embodied with wonderfully delicate ambivalence by Ms. Lorrain, Philomena is the audience’s surrogate in coming to consciousness. But it’s the developing and changing bond among the slave women — and their different degrees of resignation to their lot — that gives the play its heart.

Portrayed by Nia Calloway, Cristina Pitter, Amber Reauchean Williams and Jehan O. Young, they’re all first-rate. They convey a bone-deep familiarity with one another that is obviously the product of much thoughtful rehearsal. (Philomena to Lewis, after he says he likes to keep to himself: “We survive longer when we don’t.”)

Each of their characters has to some extent been defined by archetypal shorthand — the funny one, the angry one, the helpful one, etc. But the actresses here inhabit their parts with grounding, defining detail and without comic or tragic exaggeration.

To a one, they convey how a situation that is reprehensible to contemporary eyes is simply life to these women. They speak of parents sold to other masters, of children left behind, with a wistful acceptance and pragmatism. (Ms. Young’s character to Philomena, talking about Lewis: “Might as well love him while he’s still here.”)

The white performers, rounded out by Stephen James Anthony, don’t turn their characters into Simon Legree-like villains. They, too, are products of a warping time and place. But it’s impossible not to shudder when you see George’s perception toward Philomena flicker between that of solicitous lover and condescending, even contemptuous owner.

The design team — Lawrence E. Moten III (set), Sarah Woodham (costumes), Adam Honoré (lighting) and Fan Zhang (sound) — matches the eloquent understatement of Ms. Simpson’s script. The production is punctuated by haunting silhouettes of women reaching out in pain and a sequence that presents them as anatomical specimens, gathered to be observed and analyzed.

These voiceless moments paradoxically give a resonant voice to women who never got to tell their stories. “Behind the Sheet” may be a quiet play. But its echoes are thunderous.

Behind the Sheet

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