"The hospital is a really great place, with plenty of cheerful grownups with loud voices, with lots of toys and ladies in pink smocks who want to play with the kids, with buddies that are always available. . . In short, the hospital is groovy if you’re a patient that makes people happy. I’ve stopped making people happy. Ever since my bone marrow transplant, I’ve stopped making people happy, I can tell." – Oscar
An unsuccessful bone marrow transplant fails to give Oscar, a 10-year old boy with leukemia, hope for survival beyond a few days. He makes a decision, however, inspired by an elderly volunteer caregiver in a pink smock who pays regular visits to the pediatric ward. Having lost his faith and hope in one fell swoop, Oscar looks to the plucky, sensitive, and wise "Granny Pink," as he calls her, to change the way he thinks and the way he decides to spend his final days. Oscar writes a daily letter to God and Granny Pink becomes his companion, confidant, source of inspiration, and spiritual advisor.
The luminous and enchanting Rosemary Harris plays Oscar as well as the Pink Lady, as well as others in Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt’s somewhat gushy but sincerely-intended play, which has been translated by Stephane Laporte from the original French. To say that the dual role-playing is simply a tour-de-force for the celebrated actress is to diminish the play’s earnest if heavy-handed mission: to question and celebrate the value and delicacy of life from a perspective of youth and old age.
Set designer Michael Vaughn Sims has evoked a conspicuously sprawling section of a pediatric ward, its beds, crib, chairs, and a table upon which is a decorated Christmas tree extending itself beyond realism on George Street’s wide stage. On the other hand, Harris’s spirited performance easily persuades us where the focus should be. Notwithstanding the pink shirt, there are the clownish checkered pants that don’t quite make it to her ankles and the cap placed sportingly on her head that assuredly are intended to bring a smile to the ill and often despairing children who need it. The lauded British director Frank Dunlop has not left Harris to flounder about as she uses the space with considerable elan as winningly as she jumps back and forth in conversation between Granny Pink and Oscar, Oscar and various children in the ward, and mainly Oscar and God.
To the play’s credit, the effect of Harris assuming all the roles actually works better than the words themselves, particularly those of Oscar, whose vocabulary and insights often sound too sophisticated and precious for his age. Granny Pink, on the other hand, is eager to entertain Oscar with her former career and exploits as a lady wrestler, "the incredible midget" (stories she makes up).
Oscar is not easily persuaded that there is a God, especially since finding out that there is no Santa Claus and that his parents are not able to cope with his illness. Encouraged by Granny Pink to appreciate the gift of life no matter how brief it may be, Oscar makes the decision to pretend that he is 10 years older with every day. When Granny asks Oscar, "How old are you?" he answers, "What time is it?" This allows Oscar to imagine himself not only maturing but also allows him to amusingly assume the activities of a teenager getting his first kiss from a flirtatious Chinese girl; exhausting himself as a dating 20-year-old; getting married at 30 to his sweetheart, Peggy Blue (so named for having a condition that has made her skin blue); going through mid-life crises, and so forth to old age.
Oscar’s last 12 days are occupied by his humorous interaction with his pals in the ward, namely Bacon, so-named because of his extensive burns; Popcorn, because of his obesity; and Einstein, because of his large head. Unsurprisingly these occasionally testy encounters, more so than the somewhat conflict-free relationship between Oscar and Granny, give the play its pep. One could complain that the play drifts predictably and a bit repetitively toward its inevitable conclusion. Some judicious pruning of the two-hour play to 90 minutes or even less would have done wonders. The pleasure of watching a gifted pro (Harris has reached her 80th birthday) undertake this challenging vehicle, however, offers its own reward.
"Oscar and the Pink Lady," through Sunday, February 10, George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. $28 to $62. 732-246-7717.