Christopher Durang’s play "Miss Witherspoon" is at the John Waldron Arts Center in an InterAction Theater production deftly directed by Bruce Burgun. Durang describes "Miss Witherspoon" as a darkish comedy, that’s rather a fable.
Miss Witherspoon herself, Diane Kondrat, is a lady in her forties or fifties who is so frightened by life that even those closest to her assume that she’s depressed. She isn’t. She’s just scared, scared enough to commit suicide in the hope that this will end her dreadful fear of life. It doesn’t.
She finds herself in a sort of nether world with Mayamma, Martha Jacobs, a charmingly graceful, sari clad spirit guide. Miss Witherspoon wants nothing to do with anyone who wants to guide her spirit, especially when it means reincarnation right back to the world that the she so desperately wanted to escape.
Despite her best rude efforts against Maryamma’s maddeningly unfailing courtesy and good humor, Miss Witherspoon is indeed sent back. First, she’s suddenly an infant with a loving family, Carmen Meyer and Ben Gougeon, All seems copasetic until she eggs on a homicidal dog and ends her first reincarnation in less than two weeks. Despite further resistance, it’s back to earth again and this time the same two actors are a far from loving family of the trailer trash variety. Despite some futile attempts at help from a well meaning but overworked public school teacher, Ama Boakyewa, this reincarnation drags on until the teenaged Miss Witherspoon manages a drug overdose. The next scenes are the happiest of the night as Miss Witherspoon is reincarnated as a dog with a loving owner. Actor Diane Kondrat is fine as a troubled woman, very good as a stubborn visitor to the netherworld, and a real trip as a baby, but boy is she terrific as the happiest of golden retrievers.
I mentioned that Christopher Durang sees "Miss Witherspoon" as rather a fable and although it somehow never succeeds in being thought provoking, it indeed moves in that direction. Miss Witherspoon does seem to be getting a bit of the lessons from the lives that the long suffering Maryamma keeps forcing upon her. And, she is getting her tweedish aura in better order, but the notion of using a life in a socially useful way is still beyond her. She continues to find the repetitive reincarnation process tiring and sometimes Durang seems to find it so as well.
It takes visits from Gandalf the Wise, who as a bearded white male in a white cloak looks quite like the Gandalf in the moves, and Jesus Christ, who as an African-American woman in red high heels, a purple dress and an outrageous hat looks nothing like anything you’ve seen in the movies, to get things rolling. Neither Gandalf’s abstract pronouncements, nor the Jesus character’s recitation of the beatitudes are really the key to change. It only when the netherworld itself is being buffeted by real problems from down on earth that they and Miss Witherspoon begin to get it.
Christopher Durang has written that "Miss Witherspoon" has a happy ending that rather surprised him. In her final reincarnation things may indeed be looking up as we hear Miss Witherspoon as a baby mixing up the "Goo goos" and "ma mas" of childish language with a full set of vowels and the beginnings of sentences about "Alternative forms of energy. Consensus. Mediation [and] Diplomacy."
Christopher Durang’s "Miss Witherspoon" has final performances this Friday and Saturday at eight at the John Waldron Arts Center.
You can find an interview with Diane Kondrat on our Arts Interviews page .