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McCarter Show, "Miss Witherspoon," Explores the Idea of Reincarnation

Candace Braun

As the fall season begins at McCarter Theatre, a new comedy by award-winning playwright Christopher Durang will be brought to the stage.

Known for such works as Beyond Therapy and Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You, Mr. Durang is making his playwriting debut at McCarter with the world premiere of Miss Witherspoon.

The play, which will move to New York after its Princeton run, tells the story of a fussy woman who is forced to reincarnate each time she finds herself discontented with her life. Directed by McCarter's artistic director, Emily Mann, the play deals with the idea of reincarnation, and playfully questions the choices one faces when trying to avoid reality.

"It's the idea of someone not wanting to live, to be part of the real world," said Mr. Durang.

While some Princeton theatergoers may be drawn to the play due to its title, the playwright admits he didn't know the significance of the name Witherspoon when he gave the name to his main character.

"I was naive about it....I was walking in Princeton and I saw the street sign....and thought it sounded like the name of a cranky British woman," he said.

Mr. Durang was commissioned by Ms. Mann to write the play two years ago, when they became reacquainted after first meeting at Harvard College, where they had taken a playwriting class together. A senior at the time when Ms. Mann was only a freshman, Mr. Durang remembers the artistic director as someone who was very talented at a young age.

"I remember her very distinctly. She made a big impression on me," he said.

Ms. Mann said she felt that Mr. Durang was an obvious choice to write a play for McCarter: "He's one of the funniest playwrights in the American theater, of course, but what I really love about his writing is how he uses humor to wrestle with things that truly matter. Miss Witherspoon has everything to do with how powerless we often feel in a world where so much goes wrong, which I think we can all relate to at this heart-rending moment. But the play is also redemptive; it leaves us with hope and a glimpse of how each of us can help make a better world."

Always a Playwright

Mr. Durang grew up in Union County, and, after residing for many years in New York City, now lives in Bucks County, Pa.

He told Town Topics that he always knew he wanted to be a playwright. "I wrote my first play when I was 8," he recalled, adding that while it was only two pages, the school decided to put it on.

Encouraged, he continued writing, and by the age of 13 he had written a full-length musical, with a friend writing the music. This show was also performed by students at his school, he said.

"I came from a family that was very into the arts," he said, adding that he feels a lot of his interest in the theater came from his mother, who began taking him to see shows when he was a child.

An amateur actress, his mother performed at their local church and hospital. "I think she would have been a very good comedic actress," he said, recalling how she would love to dance the Charleston.

While Mr. Durang often finds himself writing about controversial issues in a comedic form, he said he believes the idea for this play may have evolved from his curiosity about religion and reincarnation. Although raised Catholic, during his 20s and 30s he "didn't really think about what happened after death."

However, as he grew older, he began thinking about the afterlife. One day he found himself wondering what would happen if someone who committed suicide were reincarnated, which is the basis of Miss Witherspoon.

The main character is being played by Kristine Nielsen, with whom Mr. Durang has worked in two past productions, including Betty's Summer Vacation in 1999, which won an Obie Award.

"Kristine was remarkably funny," he recalled, hinting at how well she handles the challenges of Miss Witherspoon, in which she is reincarnated as a dog and a baby.

However, because the play deals with suicide, there are some dark questions that the character must explore, including her fear of life and living.

"Miss Witherspoon is, very simply, a gift and a blessing, much needed in these troubled times," said Ms. Mann, noting that the play explores many of society's concerns over the last few years, including 9/11.

Mr. Durang's work has been produced on and off-Broadway, in regional theaters around the country, and internationally. He is the author of numerous satires, parodies, and absurdest comedies. His work first became popular in 1978 with A History of the American Film, his Tony-nominated musical spoof of Hollywood movies.

Miss Witherspoon will begin its run at McCarter Theatre on September 9, and will run through October 11. To purchase tickets, call the McCarter Theatre Box Office at (609) 258-2787, or visit www.mccarter.org.

Following its Princeton run, the show will be performed at Playwrights Horizons in New York City, from November 11 through December 18.


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