Reviewed by Will Stackman
Since "Sister Mary Ignatius..." in 1981, Christopher Durang's fantastical excursions, some more successful than others, have incorporated religious satire. His 2005 Pulitzer nominated whirlwind consideration of reincarnation, "Miss Witherspoon," now running at the Lyric Stage, harks back stylistically to "The Actor's Nightmare", with a single character careening through a psychological adventure. Director Scott Edmiston, whose Fall production of "The Women" for Speakeasy just won IRNEs for Best Play and Best Director, couldn't have found a more ideal title player than Paula Plum, who just picked up another Best Actress award at this year's IRNEs for Lyric's "...The Goat." Plum, who's created seven one woman shows as well as appearing for the ART, the Huntington, the Gloucester Stage, and the Lyric among other companies, easily draws her audience into this fantasy which carries her from suicide into Bardo, the Buddhist equivalent of Purgatory, for a series of reincarnations.
Her guide for this unwilling journey -- Miss W. was hoping to just be dead -- is perfectly cast Mala Bhattacharya, a Longy grad who's more normally seen and heard singing opera. Along the path to whatever, she encounters parents, played by Marianna Bassham, who gets to alternate between suburban housewife and trailer trash, and comedian Larry Coen who does the same as a businessman and a biker. Coen, recently seen as Laura in the Gold Dust Orphans "Plexiglas Menagerie", also does a turn as Gandalf in the finale. Bassham played Ophelia last fall in ASP's acclaimed "Hamlet" and Ymma in the New Reps "Silence" this winter. Last but hardly least, Jacqui Parker, who just received another IRNE for the title role in "Caroline or Change", first appears a school councilor but then shows up in the finale as a really cool Jesus, built off her own sincere faith with the same twinkle she brought to last year's production of "Crowns." Durang's satirical potpourri works due largely to Plum's impeccable timing in response to each new revelation and the rest of the cast's breakneck pace under Edmiston's sure hand.
Edmiston also got a design dream team, a group of recent and past IRNE winners otherwise known as "the designing women," all of whom have done outstanding work for the Lyric in the past. Janie E. Howland created a unit set full of whimsy -- baby dolls float over the stage like cherubs -- featuring a framed scrim at the back of the thrust through which are seen shelves of empty headforms. MIT's Karen Perlow provides a variety of area lighting and special effects which add to the interest, full of projections and gobos. Gail Astrid Buckley once again provides imaginative costumery, from the title character's frumpy ensemble to Jesus' white suit and church hat. Fellow IRNE winner, for last season's "5 by Tenn," created and directed by Edmiston, Dewey Dellay has come up with a soundscape which starts with a raga and drifts into popular song.
This is Miss Witherspoon's show. Plum's onstage for the entire eighty plus madcap minutes, mostly depressed and over the hill. But she variously plays a baby in a bassinet -- with an effective touch of puppetry -- the family dog in mime, and a seeker after peace and quiet, including what's described as "Jewish heaven; prolonged general anesthesia." The latter turns out to be full of scrambled memories. Real peace is as hard to achieve in the afterlife as here below. The play is also a very interesting choice for this Lenten season. Once again, Durang zeros in on questions not normally raised in secular everyday theatre, especially the big one; "What's next?" The epiphany he ends on seems less pat and satirical than the more downbeat conclusions to his other works.