Worcester Telegram & Gazette
NORTHBRIDGE — In playwright Christopher Durang’s playfully misanthropic “Miss Witherspoon,” Veronica (Lorna Noguiera) learns that suicide isn’t nearly as painless as the theme song of “M*A*S*H*” would have one believe. She’s a middle-aged malcontent who hates the world, and humanity at large, so much that she keeps killing herself, only to end up back in the Bardo, a celestial waiting area in the afterlife for those assigned for reincarnation. Her spiritual guide, Maryamma (Katie Killourhy), is relentless in her quest to prove to Veronica that her life is worth living, even if Veronica, with zealous obduracy, insists otherwise.
It’s hardly the customary, gritty theater fare that Algonkuin Theatre Projects’ founder, Marty BlackEagle, is known for, but he’s created a curtained, psychedelic, light-spangled netherworld of convincing, ethereal pleasure at the Singh Performance Center in Whitnisville. Best of all, he couldn’t have improved the casting of Noguiera in the title role, who, on a balmy Friday evening, imbibed Miss Witherspoon’s fretful cynicism with intensely endearing elocution. We are told by Maryamma that Veronica has earned her titular nickname because her personality is “like some negative Englishwoman in an Agatha Christie book whom everyone finds bothersome.” Durang’s quirky, comically alarmist sensibility is randomly funny and poignant, and there are times when “Miss Witherspoon” has the untethered timelessness of Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse Five,” as Miss Witherspoon is reincarnated in strangely amusing ways, from a baby to a dog.
Noguiera’s opening diatribe of a monologue is masterfully delivered, as chunks of the Skylab space station fall to earth all around her. She explains that her late 20th century suicide was a delayed reaction to the Skylab debacle. She’s all too happy she ended her life before 9/11, and only wishes to join Satre and Camus in a “protracted anesthetic afterlife” where the blissful prospect of nothing awaits her, but Maryamma matches Miss Witherspoon’s stubbornness with a charmingly tenacious willfulness of her own.
Killourhy is breezily effervescent as the sari-clad Maryamma, a lovely guru who is not about to let Miss Witherspoon off the hook. She and Noguiera play off each other with the humorous dissonance of the patiently sagacious mentor grappling with the perpetually dissatisfied student. Miss Witherspoon insists that she was married to the Rex Harrison of “My Fair Lady,” while Maryamma informs her that she was actually married to the soul of Rex Harrison in the body of a mine worker in 1876. Apparently, Miss Witherspoon has had many lives that she can’t remember, but she exists on a duel level of consciousness when she’s reincarnated as baby. Staring up incredulously from her crib at loving, doting parents (warmly embodied by Michael Legge and Lynda Slocomb), she fakes baby talk, when she isn’t confiding her panic to the audience at having to go through life all over again. It’s a scene that Noguiera imparts with superbly comic apprehension. Her irrepressible impersonation of Miss Witherspoon’s reincarnation as a dog is a tour de force of physical comedy, assaulting her master (Legge) with unbridled abandon, jumping up on him, and kicking her right leg with spastic, euphoric gratitude as he rubs her tummy. She exclaims that she’s much happier at being a dog than a human, but Maryamma has other things in mind, including being a baby once more, to abusive, drug-addicted parents (Legge and Slocomb again).
Karen Diggins does an efficient job at playing a teacher sympathetic to Miss Witherspoon’s plight as a 13-year-old, now abused by a widowed, abusive, drug-addicted mother, one portrayed with harrowing, mean-spirited relish by Slocomb. As ostensibly depressing as this may sound, Miss Witherspoon conveniently eschewing each reincarnated predicament by means of suicide, it’s treated with a deftly light touch by Durang.
When Miss Witherspoon demands an audience with Saint Peter, what she gets instead is a visit from Jesus, in the form of Diggins’ floppy-hat-wearing Southern belle, drawlingly reciting passages from the Sermon on the Mount. On hand, too, is the lavishly bearded Gandalf (a most amusing Legge), to lend a more conventionally heavenly look to the gathering. As it finally turns out, in this weirdly funny and affecting production, maybe life and people aren’t so bad after all.
By Paul Kolas