Saturday, April 21, 2012

REVIEW: JET-BLACK COMEDY TACKLES SOCIAL ISSUES @ THE THEATER PROJECT

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Christopher Durang is a stealth playwright: under the guise of comedy, he lobs theatrical bombs that explode our preconceived notions of the world and issue a call to action—resulting in plays that will have you talking for hours after the stage lights go down.

There is no finer interpreter of Durang's wackiness than The Theater Project, having produced six of his plays since 1996. Mark Spina has just the right directorial touch to deliver the social commentary without preaching while maintaining the play's core funny bone, and he always assembles a cast with great acting chops and comedic timing to do it. (Above L-R: Kevin Sebastian, Bev Sheehan, Meredith Handerhan)

To inaugurate the troupe's merger with What Exit? Theatre Company (and a move to a new home), Artistic Director Spina has chosen a fairly recent Durang opus, the 2005 Pulitzer Prize-nominated black comedy Miss Witherspoon. Once again, Durang creates a grotesque situation to expose a bitter truth: "all souls must keep reincarnating until they reach true wisdom."

From an ambiguous place called the Bardo ("the undiscovered country from which no traveler returns") Veronica, a woman so cantankerous that she is "anti-depressant proof," is forced to be reincarnated again and again, literally kicking and screaming. Twice, she comes back as a baby—one time (as "Miss Witherspoon") to loving parents and the other time (as Virginia) to a pair of foul-mouthed, heartless drug addicts; both times, she commits suicide rather than grow up in either milieu. Another time, she comes back as a teenagers. The fourth time, Veronica returns as a dog; with no worries and living/thinking in the present, it's her favorite incarnation, but she meets an untimely end in a collision with a car.

Guiding her through these repeated journeys is the sari-wearing Hindu sage, Maryamma, who reminds her that life and suffering are mysteries we are incapable of understanding and that suicide does not produce good karma and is just a doorway into another awful life. Only when neglected child Veronica/Virginia approaches her teacher for help does she successfully navigate and graduate from high school. And when she returns as a baby for the final time and decides to be in the present— instead of committing suicide again—she attains fulfillment.

An incredible quintet of actors takes us on this unusual journey. Bev Sheehan is grouchiness personified as Veronica/Virginia, barking out her annoyance even when she's not portraying a dog. As a baby, she captures the tongue thrust and wide-eyed stare of an infant; as a dog, she pants with her tongue out and is hilarious when asleep (complete with thumping paw when "dreaming"). Sheehan's "Miss Witherspoon is a tough nut to crack," says Maryamma, but over the 90 minutes we spend with her, she comes to an understanding of the real meaning and reason for her role in life.

Exuding an aura of calm, Jenelle Sosa is lovely as Maryamma, who never loses her temper with her obstreperous charge; she is the embodiment of peace and hope. Meredith Handerhan's portrayal of both mothers is on target. Her adoring mommy is annoyingly gushy while the drug-addled Mrs. Fortunato, with a New York accent and abusive personality, is scary-funny, especially when she decides to home school Virginia to teacher her values! Kevin Sebastian's fathers are equally fine for the same reasons, and his white-robed Gandalf matches Maryamma's calm determination to get Veronica back to earth to do something. Finally, Daaimah Talley's no-nonsense attitude serves her depiction of Virginia's teacher and Jesus Christ(in an orange suit and a big white church-lady hat) very well. She won't take Veronica's refusal to be reincarnated lying down. In fact, she and the wizard Gandalf gang up on the reluctant spirit and push her back to earth to do anything, no matter how small, to change it.

While bringing about Veronica/Miss Witherspoon's spiritual revival, Durang has a grand time skewering various religions (because Jews don't believe in afterlife, their Heaven is general anesthesia!), the reason for the Crucifixion, social culture icons (Gandalf from Lord of the Rings appears in full white beard), the Rapture and My Fair Lady!

But all this is not comedic window dressing; it's Durang's way of telling us that we must question the way things are and decide to actively change them. So recycle those newspapers and use your car less—at least do something to combat global warming. If a lot of people each do a little something, who knows what will happen. Thank you to The Theater Project for using their immeasurable talent to show us the way!

Miss Witherspoon will run through April 29 at the Burgdorff Center for the Performing Arts, 10 Durand Road, Maplewood. For information and tickets, call 800.838.3006 or visit online at www.thetheaterproject.org.