Theater Review: What Miss Witherspoon Is Missing
By Justin Sondak in Arts & Entertainment on Dec 6, 2006 7:34PM
Christopher Durang is still Christopher Durang, more or less. A generation after skewering religious hypocrisy (Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You), theatrical pretensions (The Actor’s Nightmare), and pop psychology (Beyond Therapy), Durang brings his wacky situational humor tinged with the dark and surreal to Miss Witherspoon, a reincarnation fairy tale now playing at the Next Theatre. Durang fans may be relived to know the playwright is still feeding his inner 16-year-old drama geek: Gandalf is in cahoots with Jesus, the Jews get the best heaven, dysfunctional families are hilarious.
Funny thing about the funny. In 80 minutes, Durang references terrorist attacks, nuclear proliferation and other contemporary anxieties to transform an incorrigible heroine trying to improve her aura and become a modern-day savior. And here we offer a great big “Huh???”
We were on board for most of this story. The anxious Miss Witherspoon offed herself in the ’90s, sent to a purgatory where her guardian angel Maryamma helps her work out unresolved issues and imparts wisdom somewhere between Hindu teachings and New-Agey claptrap. OK, that’s kind of kooky and charming. The horror of being reincarnated as an infant drives her to suicide, no mean feat for a two-week-old. Her next life is her comeuppance. She endures her parents’ loveless marriage until her 13th birthday, when she overdoses on happy pills. That's a bit disturbing, but humorous in its own way. Then she experiences a few more lives, cleverly sketched to provoke self-referential laughs.
Finally Gandalf and Jesus Christ, a wise and soulful black lady, implore her to return to Earth so she may save mankind. And here the show feels completely derailed. Why would Jesus and Gandalf entrust Miss Witherspoon with such a fate? Putting aside theology and Lord of the Rings mania for a moment, why would any leader put so much trust in someone not even capable of holding her own life together? Worst of all, Durang implicates us all in Gandalf’s grave motivational speech to Miss W., recounting how our violence-addled world has escalated to a near-apocalypse. Ha ha.
Sure, it's only a play. But comedy works within certain rules. Truly brilliant comedy redefines those rules (i.e. The Actor’s Nightmare). This show’s mildly interesting comedy plays by the rules when convenient and completely ignores them otherwise.
At least this cast has the chops to pull this off and leave us entertained. Linda Kimbrough is an outstanding leading lady, peeling away the layers of a hardened exterior to reveal a lost and vulnerable soul. Anita Chandwaney’s Maryamma is a compassionate guardian whose well-timed glances and perfectly pitched deadpan balance Miss W’s neurosis. The rest of the cast skillfully rolls through a panoply of alternate worlds including blue-blood and white-trash families, parent-teacher conferences, and the aforementioned afterlife. And kudos to the design team for some intense apocalyptic imagery.
Miss Witherspoon is flawed but well-paced, barreling through all that cognitive dissonance towards a troubled ending. Adept social commentator and incisive philosopher, he’s not. But Durang is still Durang.
Miss Witherspoon plays at Next Theater, 927 Noyes St., Evanston, through December 17. Tickets are $20-35. More information at www.nexttheatre.org.
Photos by Michael Brosilow