Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Miss Witherspoon"

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note: entire contents copyright 2007 by David Frieze

"Miss Witherspoon"

Reviewed by David Frieze

Christopher Durang
Directed by Scott Edmiston

Set Design by Janie E. Howland
Costume Design by Gail Astrid Buckley
Lighting Deign by Karen Perlow
Sound Design by Dewey Delay
Production Stage Manager, Kayla G. Sullivan

Veronica . . . Paula Plum
Maryamma . . . Mala Bhattacharya
Mother 1 and Mother 2 . . . Marianna Bassham
Chicken Little, Father 2, Father 2, Sleazy Man, Dog Owner, Wise Man . . . Larry Coen
Teacher, Woman in a Hat . . . Jacqui Parker

What a very strange mind Christopher Durang has. The action proper of his 2005 play “Miss Witherspoon” begins with the titular character (although her real name is Veronica and she claims to have been one of Rex Harrison’s many wives) being driven to suicide by her fear of SkyLab falling on her. She ends up in the “bardo”, Durang’s name for the way station where souls hang out while waiting for their next reincarnation. Veronica has no intention of being reincarnated – she’d prefer the kind of Jewish afterlife that resembles “prolonged general anesthesia”. But despite her willful, and occasionally successful, attempts to resist, she continues to be sent back to earth – as a suicidal infant, as the child of abusive white trash, as a dog – until she can discover the reason for her existence.

That, at least, is the first three-quarters of the play, and Durang’s absurdist imagination invents some extraordinarily funny situations and dialog (helped considerably by a considerable cast). At some point, though – around the time that Veronica is expounding her uneasiness with the basis of Christianity – he seems to have decided that he wants to write something a little more profound. Still silly, but profound. And that’s where the play starts to unravel. Whatever Durang’s aspirations may be or have been, his heart belongs to Dada, and the swivel from crazy comedy to save-the-planet inspirationalism is just too dizzying to convince.

The Lyric Stage Company’s Boston premiere production of the play serves at least partly as a showcase for Paula Plum in the title role. Director Scott Edmiston has encouraged – or at least not discouraged – a little more mugging from Plum than is necessary, but she nails Veronica’s personality and trajectory, and the sight gag of her as a baby in a cradle is brilliantly handled. Larry Coen gets to play everything from a sleazy English drug dealer to Gandalf the Wise, and does them all perfectly. Jacqui Parker is disappointingly subdued in her first role as a schoolteacher; in her second, which I will not divulge, she comes very close to stealing the show.

Technically, it’s one of strongest shows I’ve seen at the Lyric; Janie E. Howland’s set design is simple and suitably mysterious-zany, and Dewey Delay’s sound design makes all the right noises. If “Miss Witherspoon” isn’t a masterpiece, it’s no fault of the production.

-- David Frieze

"Miss Witherspoon" (23 March - 21 April)
140 Clarendon Street, BOSTON, MA
1 (617) 585-5678

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide