Hovering in the theatrical Netherland somewhere between satirical allegory and metaphysical farce is "Miss Witherspoon," the latest burst of socio-political rebellion from outre playwright Christopher Durang. Perhaps it was the large chunks of Skylab that suddenly began falling out of the sky, or rather the bizarre sight of a woman in a chicken suit flapping around warning, "The sky is falling," that has sent middle-aged "anti-depressant resistant" Veronica (Kristine Nielsen) over the edge. Most likely, however, it was a series of unhappy relationships, the frightening state of the world, and her inability to effect any change in it or in herself that has now brought Veronica to a critical impasse in her spiritual development.
After a bit of personal Sturm und Drang, Veronica has found escape in death, a suicide. To her eternal surprise, she wakes up to discover that she is destined or rather assigned to reincarnate, not just once but as many times as it takes for her to attain the clear aura of an enlightened soul. Within designer David Korins’ abstracted netherworld called "the bardo" of blue-skies and an occasional scenic prop, Veronica makes it very clear to us that she isn’t at all happy with this news, especially as it is explained to her by Maryamma (Mahira Kakkar), an aggressively sweet Indian woman dressed in an extravagant sari.
It is Maryamma’s job to prepare the willfully unwilling Veronica for her next incarnation and her next and her next, all of which make up the dramatic bulk of the play. This serves as a platform for Durang’s compulsively angry response to our soul-damaging policies. Yet, the play, even at its most vindictive, reflects his comparatively optimistic treatise on the hope for humanity.
While it is the sheer outrageousness of Durang’s premise and its execution that one may find either charmingly original or childishly banal, it is the wildly eccentric yet impassioned performance by Kristine Nielsen, as Veronica, that carries us through the play’s absurdist darkly comical episodes. Nielsen is entrusted with most of the witty narrative drive and she delivers it with a bombastic verve. Under Emily Mann’s unfailingly clever direction both Nielsen and the absurdist play she inhabits invite our affection, if not our total approval.
Nicknamed "Miss Witherspoon" by Maryamma because she reminds the powers that be of some negative and bothersome English woman in an Agatha Christie book, Veronica, a Christian by birth, but now definitely lapsed (as Durang has himself been labeled) is also bothered by the fact that the local hierarchy and Maryamma, in particular, seem to favor the Eastern religions. But it is Durang’s expressly and expressively Western sensibility that flavors the flippant dialogue with giddy references to Mahatma Gandhi, Mary Rodgers, Thornton Wilder, and Arianna Huffington. A cross between a standup comedienne and a lost soul in transit, Nielson, nevertheless, finds humor and hubris in her difficult role.
It’s mostly laugh aloud time as Veronica’s only memory of her most recent life is as one of Rex Harrison’s wives ("He had many," she tells us), but that we must do the research to find out which one she is. Kakkar is a delight as the sashaying and solicitous Maryamma, who must finally resort to asking the wise old bearded Gandalf (yes, he from "The Lord of the Rings") to enable Veronica’s next reincarnation. This, despite Veronica’s plea to at least go to Jewish heaven, which she has been told is more like general anesthesia.
The play includes two nutty if a bit too harshly sobering episodes, in which Veronica is reluctantly re-born. In the first, she is hilariously seen in a cradle as a gurgling baby who provocatively initiates a testy relationship with the family’s vicious, jealous dog.
In the next and longer one, she is being raised by physically abusive drug-taking trailer trash parents. In these skits, both sets of parents are played as cartoon figures by the very capable Colleen Werthmann and Jeremy Shamos. Linda Gravatt is excellent, as both a compassionate school-teacher on earth and later in the netherworld as a surprise visitor, whose appearance as a black woman in a fancy going-to-church hat is easily explained and is a highlight of the play.
The question the play asks is whether, in our search for a clear aura (kudos to Jeff Croiter’s lighting), we have the faith to stick with the program and eventually become part of healing collective human soul. "Miss Witherspoon" reveals a philosophical consistency, a life-affirming rage that many will find strangely comforting, others confusing. I find it commendable and, of course, comical.
Following its world premiere engagement at McCarter, the play moves to Playwrights Horizons in New York, where it begins performances on November 11.
Miss Witherspoon, through Sunday, October 16, Berlind Theater at the McCarter Theater Center, 91 University Place. Tickets $35 to $40.