ACT Theatre's Miss Witherspoon
Durang's ferociously funny yet wonderfully wise script takes us on a journey with a chronically unhappy woman named Veronica who kills herself but can't convince her annoyingly cheerful Hindu spirit guide to leave her in limbo rather than facilitating repeated reincarnations. She comes back as a baby to a well off family and connives to have their grumpy family dog attack her. Then she's sent back to a white trash tribe with only a kindly teacher to befriend her. Miss Witherspoon (as she is dubbed by wealthy Papa #1) finally comes back as a jolly, playful dog, an existence tragically ended by a car crash, which we learn was caused by the second child of her first well off family, a spoiled teenage boy who also hits two people, and the cause of all this? Miss Witherspoon herself, of course. After many requests, she is allowed to experience Jewish heaven, in which they don't believe in reincarnation so it is a vast nothingness, a prolonged anesthesia. And yet during this she flashes back to life with the white trash family, and the kindly teacher, whom she awakens to meet again, except that the elegant smiling African American teacher is now identifying herself as Jesus Christ. Oh and Gandalf is there too, but not The Lord of the Rings Gandalf (whom he resembles), but the real Gandalf. Jesus wants Miss. W. to return to the troubled earth yet again, and continue what Christ started, but Miss W. devises a way to go back and relive her life with the wealthy family, make things right, and in the process save the world. Suffice to say she doesn't go back alone, and the play ends on a very hopeful note.
In a tight and intermissionless production, director Walker brings out the best in his rock-solid cast. By this point it seems inconceivable to me that actress Anne Allgood is capable of a weak or less than accomplished performance. As Miss W., Allgood embraces this exhausting role and makes it seem easy. From bitter woman, to babbling babe, to troubled teen, to people-pleasing pooch, the actress is a joy to behold, delighting in Durang's wordplay and references, from Rex Harrison possibly being one of her mates, to references to Thornton Wilder and John Paul Sartre. Vivid supporting roles are well served by the rest of the cast. Christine Calfas is sublime as spirit guide Maryamma, and her one moment when she loses her implacable cool and cheerfulness earns one of the biggest laughs of the evening. Demene Hall as the Teacher and Jesus Christ ("I could come back as a ham sandwich next week") lends her inimitably rich, deep voice and regal stature to the proceedings, and wears (as Jesus) the most captivating outfit (and hat) of costume designer Frances Kenny's well realized collection. Terry Edward Moore is a riot as Gandalf, the various Fathers and the dog owner, and Mari Nelson shines as the different Mother's.
Bill Forrester's clever and eye-catching scenic design and Rick Paulsen's rich lighting design connect perfectly, and a moment when various scenic elements are sucked into a vortex in the floor is a special effects moment to be savored. Jim Ragland's sound design is full of nice touches, and apropos musical references.
Miss Witherspoon is not a play on the cutting edge, but it is a welcome feel good show written in a generally feel bad era. Like Thornton Wilder's The Skin of our Teeth it finds most of its humor in the mess we continuously make of the world, and our resilient efforts to keep the old globe turning. Quite simply, I cannot recommend this production highly enough.
Miss Witherspoon runs through May 28 at ACT Theatre, 700 Union Street in downtown Seattle. For more information, visit www.acttheatre.org.