Hilarious and slyly heartening, Christopher Durang's Miss Witherspoon, which opened last week at Heller Theatre, was an excellent way to kick of the company's season -- and to acknowledge the 10-year anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
As director T.J. Bowlin explained before the show, Durang drew inspiration for the play from a 10-minute monologue he wrote as part of a festival of writers commemorating Sept. 11. Durang, not really being the commemorating type, wrote instead about the country's mentality post-9/11.
So while the play isn't really about terrorism or the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, it is about the ways in which the country changed after those attacks -- which may not sound particularly hilarious, but when told with Durang's characteristically dry satire, it is.
And yet, in the midst of the humor, Durang serves up some morsels of truth, and he ends the 90-minute, one-act play on a surprisingly optimistic note.
Veronica (Kathryn Hartney) is a middle-aged woman (who claims to have been the third wife of Rex Harrison) who committed suicide in the 1990s as a delayed reaction to the existence of Skylab. The 1970s-era space station was abandoned and left to orbit earth, and potentially come crashing down to its surface any moment; its hazardous potential sent manic Veronica over the edge.
"I just can't live in a world where there's a Skylab," she tells the audience.
One can imagine how she might survive in a post-9/11 America. She has no desire to find out.
She refuses to reincarnate, so she stays in Bardo -- in Tibetan culture, a sort of in-between place in the afterlife -- where her spirit guide, Maryamma (Angela Adams), who appears to her as an Indian (though Veronica confuses Indian with Middle Eastern) woman, and futilely attempts to coax her into reincarnation.
Reincarnation, Maryamma says, is necessary to achieve enlightenment. Your spirit chooses the life that will teach you the lesson you need to learn.
But Veronica didn't much care for life on Earth, and she's been able to fight most attempts at reincarnation. She'd rather move on to heaven -- the Jewish version, preferably, which is sort of like a prolonged general anesthesia, Maryamma says -- or hell or someplace where they'll leave her alone and let her rest in nothingness. She compares reincarnation to troops repeatedly sent to the front lines of war.
Because of her cranky attitude and "brown tweed aura," the other spirits have nicknamed her Miss Witherspoon -- the kind of name you'd associate with a grumpy old English lady in an Agatha Christie novel.
Finally, Veronica reincarnates, first as a baby born to doting, rich parents (Leslie Long and Kyle Williams) who commits suicide via vicious dog, and then to poor, abusive parents (played by the same actors) -- but it's not until she's 13, when she overdoses on "happy pills" that she ends that life.
Back in the Bardo, Maryamma finally convinces Veronica that her suicides have catastrophic repercussions. The incarnation that eventually makes her happiest is ultimately ended because of her suicide as a 2-week-old.
After a pep talk from Jesus Christ, who appears to her as a black woman in a rococo hat (Knikkoya Nash), and one from Gandalf, a St. Peter-like figure who inspired the J.R.R. Tolkien character, she agrees to go back to Earth.
On one condition. She asks to return to a former life so she can prevent some of the terrible events she may or may not have caused or contributed to. But she won't have to do it alone. With her spirit guides by her side, the reincarnated Veronica -- once again a 2-week-old baby in a bassinet of privilege in Connecticut -- closes the play by spouting of words of wisdom and peace.
The play is more daring than one you'd expect to see produced by a community theater company owned and operated by the city of Tulsa. And yet Heller has always made bold choices, and I applaud its leadership for that.
Miss Witherspoon is performed on a nearly empty stage, with chairs and props introduced as necessary, but the acting is so fine that one needn't mind the lack of set. It's fitting, actually, for a play staged in the in-between.
Hartney does a good job of engaging the audience without making the removal of the fourth wall too unnatural. Adams is serene and yet comical as Maryamma, and Long, Williams and Nash, who each play a bevy of roles, deftly commit to every one. Even the moments when they seem a bit exaggerated, one gets the feeling that they are exactly as Durang intended.
Miss Witherspoon is quick, witty and comical and definitely worth the 90 minutes. It continues Sept. 16 and 17 at 7:30pm and Sept. 18 at 2pm at the Henthorne Performing Arts Center, 4825 S. Quaker Ave. Tickets are $10.
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