Regional Reviews: New Jersey
Chris Durang Explains It All:
Also see Bob's review of Boy Gets Girl
Thus, Christopher Durang sets the stage for his new play, Miss Witherspoon, which is receiving its world premiere at Princeton's McCarter Theatre. It is a co-production with New York's Playwrights Horizons where it can be seen beginning in November. I must admit that the decidedly odd, surreal set-up was initially off-putting to this literal minded reviewer. Yet rather quickly, I was swept up by Durang's inventive brilliance, sharp humor and, here is the big surprise, warm humanity. At age 56, the acerbic Durang appears to have transmogrified into an adorable teddy bear. It is not that Durang has abandoned his detestation of the destructive, rigidly doctrinaire, intolerant and coercive religious dogmatist. However, rather than concentrate on that which disturbs him, Durang offers a radiant alternative: an all-inclusive philosophy in which people of varied backgrounds and faiths see the true god, the creator of all humankind, in the guise which is in consonance with their own backgrounds and beliefs. As Maryamma tells Veronica, "we're all part of the collective human soul".
Veronica, who is dubbed Miss Witherspoon in the netherworld for no sensible reason that I could discern, will eventually be reincarnated four times. She will learn that the purpose of reincarnation is to give her the opportunity to perfect herself (referred to here as "aura cleansing"). A major element of "aura cleansing" is helping to make life on earth more tolerant and peaceful.
Before I make this all sound dull and soupy, let me offer some of the almost omnipresent wit and humor which make Miss Witherspoon such a delight. When Veronica demands to see St. Peter, Maryamma informs her that she does not qualify because she was a non-believer from early in her life:
(This reviewer is no theologian, but can say that most practicing Jews believe in an afterlife, but have little concept as to its nature. An early Jewish concept of the afterlife of the soul is very much in keeping with Durang's description.)
Before her final reincarnation, now well on the road to a cleaner aura, Veronica meets with Jesus who appears to her in the persona of a black woman and urges her to carry the message of the beatitudes back to Earth in her next reincarnation. Veronica urges Jesus to go back and deliver it herself, to which Jesus in the form of the black woman responds:
This is just a tiny sample of the witty, delightful and, likely to some, wicked dialogue which Durang has in store for us. I hope it got you hooked.
Kristine Nielsen shines in a role that can best be described as a tour de force (or should I say tour de farce?). Her Veronica is acerbic and sardonic. Yet she exudes the bravura style which engages us with the force of a dynamic story oriented stand up comedian. During her reincarnations, Nielson always starts life as a baby. She is somehow a convincing one as she knowingly satirizes baby behavior and quickly interjects adult lines to lead her parents to the actions desired by the aware Veronica. Particularly satisfying is her portrayal of a hurting adolescent daughter of ignorant, drug abusing parents. Nielson magically seems to actually transform herself into a troubled teenager.
Colleen Werthmann and Jeremy Shamos are delightful in satiric roles as Veronica's two sets of parents during her multiple reincarnations. One middle class and somewhat clueless, and the other of the Hell's Angels variety. Shamos gets to essay a couple of other roles, including that of the wise Gandalf. Don't ask, see for yourself.
Lynda Gravatt gets to act in two distinct styles and delivers strongly in both. As teacher-advisor of the troubled adolescent, she quietly portrays the frustrated, encouraging teacher who tries to gently motivate a student trying to overcome a destructive home. As the feisty Jesus, she entertains as she preaches with sassy humor. Mahira Kakkar's Maryamma easily conveys grace and dignity.
Emily Mann has directed with clarity, eliciting strong performances (particularly from Ms. Nielsen) and nailing all the laughs. However, the storybook-like rectangular box set by David Korins did not feel appropriate to the underlying themes of this comedy.
Durang ultimately dots too many i's and crosses too many t's in pedantically spelling out his admirable messages. However, the ninety minute or so long one-act Miss Witherspoon moves swiftly, and provides an abundance of wit and wisdom, as well as sweetness and charm.
Miss Witherspoon continues performances through October 16, 2005 at the Berlind Theatre of the McCarter Theatre Center, 91 University Place, Princeton 08540; box office: 609-258-2787; online: www.mccarter.org
Miss Witherspoon by Christopher Durang; directed by Emily Mann
Cast Veronica ...Kristine Nielsen Maryamma .........................Mahira Kakkar Mother I & II ..Colleen Werthmann Father I & II, Others Jeremy Shamos Teacher, Christ ...Lynda Gravatt