Monday, October 21, 2013

Miss Witherspoon at Laboratory Theater

Stephanie Davis in the title role
Right or wrong, I often decide within the first few minutes of a play whether I like it or not.  I still remember going to see Carousel at Lincoln Center and taking an immediate -- and quite strong -- dislike to it.  This week-end I saw Miss Witherspoon by Christopher Durang at the Laboratory Theater of Florida in Fort Myers. Happily, my first impression was a positive one, and it held through the 95 minute show.

When we entered the theater -- actually more of a church hall with a stage and chairs set up for the audience -- there was great music playing.  The first song I heard was Rodgers and Hart's "Where or When" which has been recorded by the likes of Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald and Diana Krall.  I'm sure you know the lyrics, which go, in part:

"...It seems we stood and talked like this, before
We looked at each other in the same way then
But I can't remember where or when..."

The music later segued to the Talking Heads' "Once in a Lifetime" ("....You may find yourself, in a beautiful house with a beautiful wife, You may ask yourself, well, how did I get here?..")   I wondered what connection the songs could possibly have to one another and then promptly forgot my question as the house lights dimmed.

In the opening scene of the play, we listen in on Virginia's "woe is me" phone call with a friend.  She is quite clearly overwhelmed by both her life and the world at large.  To cut to the chase (actually, the end of the scene), Virginia kills herself, and when we next see her she has woken up in the Bardo.  In case you don't know (I didn't), the Bardo is a Tibetan word for the state of existence between two lives on Earth.  You got it -- the play is about reincarnation. (And this is the link to the lyrics of the music playing when we arrived at the theater.)

Not having been happy in her first (or was it her fourth?) life on Earth, Virginia is quite reluctant to go back and give it another whirl.  Maryamma, her Bardo Buddhist "guide", is insistent that it's not really Virginia's choice.  Oh, but Virginia is now called "Miss Witherspoon" because the name seems to suit her brown tweed aura.  Just another thing that she's not happy about.  And she's quite confused about why she's in a Buddhist holding cell of sorts when she was a Catholic on Earth.  Maryamma quite calmly explains that this is a choice that her soul made.

I don't want to give away too much of the plot in case you're able to get to the show next week-end.  Suffice it to say that we see Miss Witherspoon experience several lives during the show, with varying degrees of success.  Perhaps my--and definitely Virginia's own--favorite was when she came back as a dog.

It's often hard for me to articulate why I liked a show.  There's lots to commend about this production of Miss Witherspoon, though.  I enjoyed the dialogue, particularly the back and forth between Virginia and Maryamma that was chock full of movie and literary references.  It was smart and often quite funny.  I liked the fact that the play made me think, not so much about the afterlife but about the daisy chain impact your choices have. And the acting was top notch.  Stephanie Davis, a member of the original ensemble at Florida Repertory Theater, did a wonderful job as Virginia/Miss Witherspoon.  I totally went with her character's experience without questioning whether it was consistent with my own belief system (such as it is).   And I smiled every time Gerrie Benzing appeared onstage as Maryamma.   Maryamma was funny and earnest and completely nonplussed by Miss Witherspoon's resistance to the process.   Kathleen Moye, Rob Green, and Yvonne Shadrach were strong as well in their supporting roles.  I can understand why the play was one of the finalists for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2006, although it's so well-suited for an intimate venue that it's hard to imagine it on a Broadway stage.

Miss Witherspoon is the second production that I've seen by The Laboratory Theater of Florida.  The first was The Laramie Project in 2011, and it was also very well done.  While the Laboratory Theater is definitely community theater--hence the downscale venue and small audience--it is well worth checking out.  And at $20 a ticket, it's a bargain.  This season holds a bit of everything, from the upcoming Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune to Death of a Salesman to The Altruists.  And on December 7th, the Laboratory Theater will present the results of its 24 hour play writing contest.  I will definitely be back.  

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