"I find it hard to get on the hope bandwagon," declares Veronica, the character who narrates her journey and ours through Christopher Durang's dark, funny, entertaining but convoluted Miss Witherspoon, now onstage at Live Theatre Workshop.
In his body of work, playwright Durang has taken on most of our sacred and cultural institutions like Catholicism and sexual abuse (Sister Mary Ignatius Explains it All For You); family (The Marriage of Bette And Boo); psychotherapy (Beyond Therapy) and even theater itself in the 2013 Best Play Tony Award-winning Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. A prolific playwright (and actor), Durang is always recognizable by his dark, often absurdist work that makes us laugh, gasp and cringe simultaneously as we see ourselves and societal sensibilities drawn and quartered.
In Miss Witherspoon, Durang unleashes his crafty wiles upon the current state of the world, which offers so many horrors and dangers that sensible folks want nothing more to do with it and sometimes understandably prefer a permanent check out. They are, in a way, scared to death. But the problem with the death thing, Veronica and we find, is the phenomenon of reincarnation. It seems that a being must be tortured with life upon life until that being reaches wholeness: lessons learned, deeds deemed good enough and understanding and acceptance reached in fullness.
Veronica (Lesley Abrams), she herself tells us, became so distraught in the late 1990s with the certainty that Sky Lab was falling from the heavens to land its city-block-sized self somewhere on the planet, that she couldn't stand the anxiety-producing thought of it perhaps landing specifically on her person. So she offed herself. Besides, the utter recklessness of the creators of Sky Lab not planning a way to get it back to earth while ensuring the safety of the planet's population was proof that human beings were so stupid that it was dangerous in any case to live among them.
But, damn, not quite finished on earth, she finds herself herself in the Bardo, a Buddhist concept, which is a kind of waiting room where souls go to sort out the manner in which they are to be reincarnated. Veronica is not happy about this at all, and her grouchiness gives off an aura that's sort of "brown-tweedy" rather than the preferred clear and light. That has earned her the nickname "Miss Witherspoon," we learn from the spirit guide she has been assigned, a being called Maryamma (Carlisle Ellis), to help her accept the rules of the game. Maryamma explains that the nickname conjures up one of those snooty, unpleasant spinsters in an Agatha Christie mystery.
Veronica pleads her case with great passion. Maryamma tells her that Christians who believe in an afterlife, including the lapsed ones like Veronica, must engage in a process of reincarnation enabling eventual entrance to heaven. Since Jews don't believe in an afterlife, they get to retire to nothingness, a state akin to being anesthetized eternally. (Sartre and Camus have also gained access to this state.)
That's where Veronica wishes to go. But, no. Even with her powerful resistance to the tiresome and relentless process of reincarnation, she finds herself a new baby in a nice household; but she screws that up. Then again in a not-so-nice household; she screws that up as well. When she finds herself as a dog with a loving owner, that's not so bad. Life might be attractive after all. Well, that gets screwed up too, because of her unseemly actions in other lives.
LTW gives us a lively 90-minute romp through Veronica's dilemmas. That's because Abrams, under Sabian Trout's direction, does a fine job with the enormous load of giving us a character who, in spite of her unattractive qualities, still appeals to us. That's no easy task. With her long soliloquies, Abrams' role requires her to be a sort of stand-up comedian in addition to an actor assuming the various roles of her reincarnations. Although Veronica claims to be depressed, she seems awfully animated, even angry at times. Of course, a choice to play "depressed" wouldn't engage us. But Abrams starts at a pretty high pitch and maintains that pitch through the rest of the piece. It might be more effective if she took a moment from time to time to be more vulnerable, to let us into her pain. Yes, it's a black comedy that leans often into farce; nonetheless, Veronica is a representation of us, and it would add a desirable dimension to have her genuinely reflect our pain as well.
Trout has put together a solid supporting cast. Ellis, sari-clad and barefoot, gives Veronica firm but tender direction in her search for peace. However, to our delight, she also is not above being a bit snippy and impatient. Bree Boyd and Drew Kallen-Keck are effective in various roles in Veronica's reincarnation scenarios, as is Carley Elizabeth Preston, who also appears as, well, God, or a somewhat surprising manifestation of him.
This piece provides some serious challenges in the design departments, and LTW takes them on quite impressively. It would be fascinating to see the fine-tuned choreography backstage that results in the hilarity onstage.
Miss Witherspoon grew from a piece Durang was asked to contribute for an event marking the first anniversary of 9/11. Consequently, a full play was commissioned by the McCarter Theatre. Miss Witherspoon was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Drama for 2006, but ultimately a prize was not awarded that year.
In spite of herself, Veronica, after meeting a variety of gods that includes Gandalf from Lord of the Rings, finds herself a bit hopeful about her potential contributions to life on earth. This turnaround happens rather quickly, and this is where a bit of ragged playmaking is evidenced. However, Durang's sensibilities, his critical eye and his sharp wit given embodiment with this skilled cast, not only make us laugh out loud, but leave us with more than a few things to think about.