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The Mass Media

11/27/23 pdf
November 27, 2023

A Journey Through the Afterlife

Jesus, Miss Witherspoon, Gandalf and Maryamma
Jesus, Miss Witherspoon, Gandalf and Maryamma

Miss Witherspoon, a play by Tony-nominated playwright and Harvard graduate Christopher Durang, made its Boston debut March 23 at The Lyric Stage Company. Upon entering the theater, I was a bit put off by the dozens of baby dolls suspended from the ceiling like infant corpses in some Japanese horror flick. The bongo-accompanied moaning, which was played on a never-ending loop, seemed more appropriate for an opium den than a theater and didn’t do much for me either. Once the play got underway, however, I was surprised to find myself swept up into a hilarious and witty production that was often farcical and just as often poignant. The play, directed by Scott Edmiston, tackles a number of serious world issues from global warming, war, religion, terrorism and suicide, delivering a hopeful message in a humorous and entertaining way.

Miss Witherspoon tells the tale of a woman, played by award-winning veteran of the Boston stage Paula Plum, who, fed up with the depressing state of affairs in the world commits suicide hoping to end her suffering. Instead she finds herself in Bardo, a type of nether-worldly waiting room where souls with impure auras prepare for reincarnation. Miss Witherspoon however (as her soul is named) has no desire to return to earth and resists fiercely.

Maryamma, a wise part of the “collective human soul” in the form of a sari-wearing Indian woman, acts as Miss Witherspoon’s guide through Bardo, explaining the need for all souls to cleanse their auras through reincarnation before they can reach a state of peace. While the situation may seem deep, it really exists only to give Miss Witherspoon a chance to sound off on all the ills and hopelessness of the world, including Skylab’s re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere in the 1970s, an event which she credits as the reason for her suicide two decades later.

Miss Witherspoon then undertakes her first reincarnation of the play, though she has already had many previous less-than-virtuous lives, including not saving her sister during the Salem witch trials. Her first reincarnated life doesn’t last very long. Despite having loving and affectionate parents, Miss Witherspoon is determined to escape the horrors of earthly existence, provoking Maryamma to ask, “Did you commit suicide at two weeks old?”

Upon returning to Bardo, she continues to question life and the meaning of carrying on in a world gone mad. Disillusioned, she refuses to accept Maryamma’s words of wisdom and is reincarnated several more times, learning lessons along the way. These lives include a memorable turn as a dog that had the audience howling with laughter. These reincarnations are followed by what is probably the most memorable and absurd scene of the play, where Miss Witherspoon meets with Gandalf and Jesus (in the guise of a sassy black woman with a new hat) who ask her to return to Earth to break down tribal barriers and make the world a better place.

The Lyric Stage Company is Boston’s oldest professional theater company and performs in an intimate 240-seat theater on the second floor of 140 Clarendon St., just steps from Back Bay Station and Copley Square. The theater has no curtains, minimal props and limited space, but the design team makes great use of what it has to create the various settings of the play. The lack of aesthetic stimulation isn’t missed, as the characters and dialog is what will keep audiences laughing non-stop from start to finish.

Miss Witherspoon runs through April 21; tickets range from $23 to $48 and can be purchased online at www.lyricstage.com. In May, The Lyric closes its 2006-2007 season with George Bernard Shaw’s classic satirical comedy Arms and the Man.