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New Jersey by Bob Rendell

Chris Durang Explains It All:
Miss Witherspoon Debuts at the McCarter

Also see Bob's review of Boy Gets Girl

Miss Witherspoon
Kristine Nielsen
Dear me, the sky is falling. Unable to cope with the horrors of modern civilization and inexplicably pushed over the edge by the crashing back to Earth of Skylab, the middle-aged Veronica commits suicide. However, as she tells us in an establishing monologue, she is quite content to have been missed 9/11, when "people danced in the street in celebration" ("Oh lots of people killed, yippee, yippee, yippee"). The rub is that that the powers that be in the afterlife are insisting that the Christian secularist Veronica reincarnate and return to earth, and Veronica wants no part of it. Enter Maryamma, a serene, attractive, coolly preemptory young Hindu woman dressed in a sari and headdress.

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:

Maryamma: ... and there’s a pet heaven. And a Muslim heaven. And a Jewish heaven which, since they don’t believe in an afterlife, is kind of like prolonged anesthesia.

Veronica: I want that one! Send me to that one.

(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:

I did that once, now it’s somebody else’s turn! I look down at people on earth not following what I said and I get all riled up. I mean I said ‘Blessed are the merciful,’ right, that’s clear, right? I didn’t say Blessed are those who proclaim themselves holier than others and read the Book of Revelations as if it's an instruction booklet, and sit around waiting for the Rapture, when they think that I’m going to bring all those holy folk up to heaven, and we’re gonna sit up there together and watch Jews and atheists and non-Christians writhe about in agony for years and years. And we’ll watch that as what? – entertainment? Enjoyable revenge?

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


Photo: Joan Marcus


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- Bob Rendell



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