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'Miss Witherspoon' will make you laugh – and squirm

By Lawrence Toppman
ltoppman@charlotteobserver.com

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  • Review

    Miss Witherspoon

    Christopher Durang’s comedy about a woman who can’t stop being reincarnated to an Earth she’s …er…dying to escape.

    WHEN: Through April 27 at 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday.

    WHERE: Carolina Actors Studio Theatre, 2424 N. Davidson St.

    RUNNING TIME: 105 minutes.

    TICKETS: $18-$28.

    DETAILS: 704-455-8542, nccast.com.



Christopher Durang couldn’t have picked a more apt subject than resurrection for his comedy “Miss Witherspoon,” because it resurrects themes that have concerned him over a 35-year career as a playwright: depression, religious ideas, child abuse, parents who don’t understand each other or anyone else, even briefly (if I understood the opening monologue rightly) the value of therapy and/or the drugs that may come with it.

Like much of Durang’s work, it has a linear plot – a woman in some limbo-like afterlife keeps getting sent to Earth against her will – tied to a loose construction, in which he explores any thought or image that pops into his mind. Folks familiar with Durang won’t be surprised when someone in a chicken suit squawks “The sky is falling” and bolts across the stage, never to be seen again.

Veronica (Shawnna Pledger) reveals many of her neuroses in the opening speech to the audience, depicting herself as the sort of person most of us would flee. She spent her adult life in a state of fear and disorientation and can’t wait to enjoy the ignorant bliss of eternity.

Maryamma (Ana Rodriguez), who wears a sari and speaks in an Indian accent – and is apparently the spiritual adviser Veronica’s soul has chosen – tries to help her learn life lessons, as Veronica goes back and again and again and ends short lives full of misery.

This is indeed a comedy, probably the only one in which we laugh when an unseen dog chomps the baby who’s more than willing to be sent back to limbo. It’s a comedy of the absurd, with talking infants and caricatured drug-addicted parents, but that’s Durang’s style: He wants you to laugh uncomfortably, then think about your deeper response after the laughter dies down.

Designer Daniel Fleming emphasizes the surreality by placing the action under a hanging tangle of lights and fans and other paraphernalia, an electrical sword of Damocles. (Think of a smaller version of Jean Tinguely’s sculpture at the Carillon Building.)

Christian Casper, last seen at CAST as a fiery Beethoven in “32 Variations,” makes his directing debut with the company. He manages a good balance between naturalism and fantasy: Veronica seems real to us, but her plights as infants and little girls have an unreal quality. (It would be too disgusting for an audience to imagine a real baby chewed by a real Fido.)

Durang, Casper and Pledger take a joint risk that we’ll be put off by Veronica. She first seems an incessant whiner and a cringe-inducing kook, talking about a life spent worrying that Skylab will plummet from the sky onto her skull and failing to connect (as far as we can guess) with any other humans.

As we get to know Veronica, her capacity for happiness and self-awareness grows, and Pledger’s performance takes on more colors. (Rodriguez also does good work as her patient spirit guide.) Perhaps Durang is reminding us that it’s never to late to blossom as a human being – even after you technically stop being one.

Toppman: 704-358-5232
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