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Christopher Durang’s “Miss Witherspoon” Debuts at McCarter; Dark Comedy Features Bizarre Adventures in the Afterlife

Donald Gilpin

Veronica, known as “Miss Witherspoon” because of her “brown tweed aura … she’s like some negative Englishwoman in an Agatha Christie book who everybody finds bothersome,” has committed suicide and just wants to be left alone to rest in oblivion in the afterworld. What she does not want is reincarnation, especially the sort of reincarnation with obligations attached. “It’s not my place to fix the world,” she protests to her otherworldly spiritual guide. “I’m not Mahatma Gandhi. I’m an emotionally damaged woman with poor follow through and little bravery.”

This clever conceit — the willful, outspoken woman in the afterlife, resisting reincarnation and harboring a major grudge against the world — provides Christopher Durang with a prime perspective and vantage point from which to lance his satiric attacks in his world premiere production of Miss Witherspoon, playing at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre through October 16. This production will then move to Playwrights Horizons in New York for an additional six-week run.

Exploring issues no less momentous than life and death, religious faith, and the fears and anxieties of our age — with specific references to the tragedy of 9/11 and perils of climate change, violence, and nuclear war in the Middle East, Miss Witherspoon would hardly seem to qualify as a comedy, but Mr. Durang, one of the funniest playwrights of the past fifty years, is a master at mixing horror and humor, the tragic and the ridiculous.

Imagine Alice in Wonderland and Theater of the Absurd meeting August Strindberg’s expressionist, philosophical Dream Play, with a bit of Thornton Wilder — more Skin of Our Teeth than Our Town — on the side. (In a direct allusion to Mr. Wilder, Miss Witherspoon’s spiritual guide jokes that he’s not presently available in the afterworld because he’s been reincarnated as Arianna Huffington.)

Mr. Durang sets his sights here on some of the same targets he has pierced so deftly in earlier plays, most notably Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You (1981), where he lampooned the excesses of authoritarian nuns and Catholic church dogma, and Baby With the Bathwater (1983), where he mocked bad parenting and the dysfunctionality of families.

Kristine Nielsen in the title role here takes the audience on her 90-minute journey, without intermission, into the Bardo (a Tibetan word for the intermediate state between two lives), then back and forth, against her will, to earth for three different reincarnations and two do-overs, where she takes the opportunity to cleanse the clouded aura of her soul.

Ms. Nielsen is a commanding, sympathetic focal point for the production. Emotional and expressive in her resistance to being reincarnated, Ms. Nielsen can be larger than life — comical and even cartoonish — in response to the absurdities of Mr. Durang’s world, yet at the same time she creates a credible, three-dimensional, even lovable character.

Her situation and her struggles are humorous and her comic timing is sharp. She displays the instincts of an accomplished stand-up comedian. But the audience cannot help but identify with her in her suffering as she begs to be relieved of the obligation to return to the travails of the troubled world. A seasoned Durang actress, Ms. Nielsen shows further flexibility and comic acumen in her reincarnations as a precocious baby in a bassinet, a psychologically damaged young girl, then an eager golden retriever puppy.

As Miss Witherspoon’s spiritual advisor Maryamma, Mahira Kakkar provides an effective foil, a convincing otherworldly presence beautifully robed in a flowing pink and yellow sari. Her unflappable peacefulness and composure combat Miss Witherspoon’s anger and stubbornness, as Maryamma struggles to persuade the protagonist to learn from her reincarnations and to make progress in improving her attitude and purifying her aura.

The three other performers provide excellent support and show astonishing versatility in a slew of comical, colorful two-dimensional roles. Colleen Werthmann as Mother 1 and 2 and Jeremy Shamos as Father 1 and 2 convincingly and amusingly transform from upper middle class, conscientious parents in Miss Witherspoon’s first reincarnation to lower class, loud-mouthed, and abusive bad parents in her next appearance on earth. Mr. Shamos does three additional deft turns as a sleazy Man in the Playground, who sells the 13-year-old incarnation of Miss Witherspoon the drugs she needs to commit suicide and return again to the afterlife, then the Dog Owner of Miss W’s most happy reincarnation, and finally the wise, white-robed, white-bearded Gandalf in the final scenes in the Bardo.

Lynda Gravatt takes on two memorable roles. First, she is the caring, supportive Teacher who helps Miss Witherspoon’s young girl character to resist her parents’ destructive influences, to make it through school and actually deliver the graduation speech. Then, as the play approaches a resolution of sorts, Ms. Gravatt, decked out in purple suit, pearls, and an impressively large going-to-church hat, confronts Miss Witherspoon in the afterlife as none other than Jesus Christ, with a sharp sense of humor and bit of spiritual instruction to help the protagonist reincarnate successfully. “I take many forms,” Ms. Gravatt (Jesus Christ) intones. “Today I’m a black woman. Do you like my hat?” Ms. Gravatt provides an authoritative and compelling presence in both roles.

McCarter Artistic Director Emily Mann has directed this production with a deft comic touch. She maintains the difficult, delicate balance between the absurd and the serious. The laughter abounds from start to finish, with few breaks, but Mr. Durang’s dark satire and his difficult questions about our lives and our world register uncompromisingly.

The pace moves swiftly, aided significantly by David Korins’ imaginatively economical set design, which rapidly slides in minimal walls and furniture to shift back and forth from the beautiful celestial blue Bardo to the several different earthly locales. Lighting by Jeff Croiter and soundscape by Darron L. West assist in creating both the worldliness and otherworldliness of the domain of Mr. Durang’s play and enhance the requisite realistic and supernatural effects of this production.

Miss Witherspoon, with its excellent cast and first-rate production, should have a successful run for four more weeks at the Berlind, then six weeks at Playwrights Horizons on West 42nd Street in New York. In the canon of Christopher Durang’s many brilliant, irreverent, and scathingly satiric comedies, Miss Witherspoon does lack the sharp edge and wickedness of Sister Mary, and some may miss the outrageousness of the spoofs on society's propensity for sex and violence that characterized Betty’s Summer Vacation (1999). Maryamma, Gandalf, Black woman as Jesus Christ and St. Peter (who remains offstage) are certainly softened versions of Mr. Durang’s earlier array of destructive authority figures, and we have seen far more villainous perversions than the slimy Man in the Playground.

What Miss Witherspoon offers in compensation — along with the usual rich dose of Mr. Durang’s humor and a hefty supply of witty satire — is a certain heart and humanity. Amidst the despair and cynicism, Miss Witherspoon, at the end, actually begins to learn from her failed incarnations, clears up her aura and, starting again as a baby in the bassinet, might even help to heal the world.



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