IMAGE: Maryamma (Pooja Chawla) and Victoria (Nancy Blum) in Miss Witherspoon at the Silver Spring Stage. Photo by Harvey Levine.
REVIEW • BY STEVE LAROCQUE
As the lights came down on the final scene of Miss Witherspoon, which runs through June 3 at Silver Spring Stage, the lady next to me – a veteran theatergoer – asked, “Is that the end?” As you can imagine, this is probably not what the playwright intended.
Miss Witherspoon is about a really big subject: the afterlife, what happens to us after we die.
A few playwrights have tackled it: Shaw in Man and Superman, Sutton Vane in Outward Bound, and others, I’m sure. And Christopher Durang, the author of Sister Mary Explains It All For You and Beyond Therapy, gives it his best shot here, using black comedy, his forte, to address what most people would consider a very serious subject.
Photo of Miss Witherspoon at the Silver Spring Stage by Harvey Levine.
Unfortunately, the subject and the style don’t suit each other well. It’s like trying to meditate while watching a lot of really bad SNL sketches.
The central character of Miss Witherspoon is Victoria (Nancy Blum), a middle-aged American lady, living in the late 1970’s, who describes herself as “too old to change.”
She has become obsessed with the idea that Skylab, the American space station, has gotten out of control and is in imminent danger of plummeting to Earth – more specifically, on her. (Skylab did fall to Earth in July 1979, but the debris that survived reentry ended up in the Indian Ocean.)
So what does she decide to do about it? Commit suicide, of course. Think of it as a preemptive strike. Are we in black comedy territory yet? You bet.
Victoria’s suicide propels her into what will eventually become a long series of reincarnations.
Nancy Blum as Victoria with Taylor Bono and David Dieudonné as doting parents. Photo by Harvey Levine.
Not that Victoria believes in reincarnation; in fact, she insists, in her stick-in-the-mud fashion, that she won’t allow herself to be reincarnated.
A lot of good that does: under protest, she is propelled through a succession of lives: as the baby daughter of doting middle-class American parents (Taylor Bono and David Dieudonné) and their vicious dog Fido; as the adolescent daughter of abusive stoner parents (Bono and Dieudonné, again); as a dog; as the adolescent daughter once again, but this time doing drugs herself; and, finally, as the baby.
She is vectored on this juggernaut by Maryamma (Pooja Chawla), a relentlessly cheerful afterlife guide who turns up between incarnations to inform Victoria that she still has a lot to learn before she can aspire to full-fledged enlightenment and the accompanying shiny aura.
Other than Blum and Chawla, the cast members play multiple roles, and they are very good at it. As is usually the case at Silver Spring Stage, the level of performance is high, but Durang’s roles are all over the place. Some are clever, like Juliana Ejedoghaobi’s Jesus Christ, who appears as a Red Hatter (actually, the hat is flowered, but the attitude is all Red Hat) with some pretty stretchy theological concepts. Others, like Bono’s abusive mother, are downright creepy. (Don’t bring the kids, unless your idea of good theater includes adolescents being slapped around and verbally abused.)
Nancy Blum as Victoria withTaylor Bono and David Dieudonné as not-so-doting parents. Photo by Harvey Levine.
Unfortunately, the most memorable characters are the creeps, because they make the grotesque situations work. And that’s probably one of the limitations of black comedy: if there’s a message, or just a coherent story somewhere among all the goings-on, we’re not likely to get it, nor to realize that the string of absurd situations has run out of gas, until we ask, “Is that the end?”
Not that the play doesn’t have its moments. Victoria wonders aloud why salvation requires sacrifice – whether the animal (and human) sacrifices of antiquity, or God’s offering up of His own Son. The ideas are cogent, moving, and powerfully delivered. Unfortunately, there’s not enough of this, and too many grotesque situations that don’t seem to lead anywhere, except to the next incarnation. And the ending … well, I’m not supposed to talk about that, but let’s just say that it’s pretty cobbled-together.
So, to borrow Durang’s black comedy view of things, what does this quirky lurch through the afterlife have to offer to a stodgy, fearful American lady in search (however reluctantly) of enlightenment? What lesson can she take from the journey?
If you are reincarnated – whether you believe in it or not – every successive life you lead will probably be worse than the last, unless: a. You are forearmed with a clever vocabulary and lots of attitude, or b. You are a dog with a doting master.
Is that all there is? That’s what I got. If you don’t believe me, go see for yourself and form your own conclusions. I’m prepared to be proved wrong.
By Christopher Durang; directed by Kevin O’Conell; produced by Devon Seybert; set by Maggie Modig; costumes by Devon Seybert; lighting by Bill Strein; sound by Rich Frangiamore. At Silver Spring Stage, 10145 Colesville Road, Silver Spring, MD. Through June 4. Running time: 90 min (no intermission).
Cast: Nancy Blum, Taylor Bono, Pooja Chawla, David Dieudonné, Juliana Ejedoghaobi