With the story of Terri Schiavo still fresh in so many Americans' minds, is the time yet right for a major play about the rights and desires of the dying? Absolutely. Whether the time is right for Fran's Bed is another question.
James Lapine's play, which is currently making its New York premiere at Playwrights Horizons, is an impressively even-handed treatment of an always-emotional story: A woman is confined to a hospital bed, maintaining the merest connection to life only with the aid of machines and round-the-clock care. How does this affect her family? More importantly, how does this affect her? And what decisions should be made?
One suspects that the theatre is the natural home for this story; neither film nor television allow a similarly seamless blending of viewpoints. The merging of the past and the present, with the woman's recollections and hallucinations mingling with her family's current concerns, can all be played out with the woman - capable of neither speech nor movement - figurative and literally at the center of it all, always a vital, conscious, active presence.
And though Lapine has used every dramatic trick in the book to fashion this living mosaic, he's ultimately let himself become too influenced by the hospital locale in which the play is mostly set. Even when Fran's Bed works, which it does much of the time, it's a sterile experience; you can practically smell the lemon-scented Lysol during the family's pained, strained discussions around Fran's bedside. Lapine's eagerness to present us every side of this story is commendable; his inability to make more of it compelling or original is frustrating.
The show's most compelling unanswered question is how Fran (Mia Farrow) arrived at her current state; there's some controversy about who, if anyone, is responsible. All that's known with certainty is that a tennis accident initiated a cascade of events that, over a period of time and many bottles of painkillers, robbed her of her faculties. Additional details surrounding this most interesting of mysteries won't be revealed here.
But while Fran can't communicate with her family, her interior life is full, a steady stream of memories and recreations of events from her past she uses to stay connected to the real world. Her relationship with her husband Hank (Harris Yulin), devoid of passion for a while, led her to seek temporary solace in another man's arms; her ungrateful daughters, Vicky and Birdie (Heather Burns and Julia Stiles), grew up to be ungrateful women who learned about responsibility toward everyone except their mother.
Lapine can't avoid predictability in the interactions between the family members as he's scripted and directed them; Vicky and Birdie of course work toward a reconciliation, with their mother and each other, and Hank slowly comes to rediscover what Fran means to him and what he needs to do for her. Additional conflict is provided by Fran's caregiver, Dolly (Brenda Pressley), a religious woman who believes that life is paramount, and clashes with those who disagree. The resulting arguments could have been lifted word-for-word from Terri Schiavo headlines, though to Lapine's credit, the situations don't always play out onstage exactly as you expect.
Even when they don't, you tend to hope for invention and insight that aren't quick to appear. Lapine's freshest concept involves the hospital's television set, and its effects on Fran's subconscious. While this scene, structured around a particularly melodramatic soap opera, is the play's most surprising, it also reeks the most of cleverness at the expense of truthfulness, and in a play with few exciting dramatic revelations, honesty is usually the better policy.
It certainly works for Yulin, who gives a desperate, heartfelt performance that simply and movingly delineates Hank's difficult relationship with Fran and the children. His Hank has a strength and determination that serve him well, but don't serve him consistently; he's a man in the middle of what could be a years-long emotional breakdown, and you're not always sure how long he'll be able to hold on. Pressley is also very good as the stalwart, devout Dolly, and her passionate persuasiveness is key to keeping the play's scales balanced.
As for the daughters, Burns's Vicky is a collection of awkwardly connected line readings and muted enthusiasm that never seem right for a concerned parent forced to play the role of concerned child. And Stiles never convinces as the prodigal daughter returning to her family after carving out a hugely successful life away from them. Stiles has made no decision about whether her loyalties lie more with herself or her family, so her performance is largely incomprehensible.
Farrow's work, however, rings through loud and clear: Dressed all in white, and with her flowing, golden curls framing her face, she looks like a perfect, china-skinned child, so fragile that she'd break in a gentle gust of wind. Simultaneously ancient and newborn, she beautifully conveys the curious paradox of being both at the end and beginning of life.
While Farrow is obviously capable of carrying the show, as both grandmother in the present and "shiksa goddess" of the past, even she has trouble bestowing much legitimacy on the scenes that require her to interact with herself: The mannequin used to represent the infirm Fran never looks real, and in every scene set in the hospital, just conspicuously lies there. Despite a mostly fulfilled promise of dramatic equanimity, so does Fran's Bed.