Hilarious Play with Serious Message: New City Stage Company’s Miss Witherspoon

Julie Czarnecki in New City Stage Company's Miss Witherspoon. Photo by Jeffrey Stockbridge.

Ensemble in New City Stage Company's Miss Witherspoon. Photo by Jeffrey Stockbridge.

by Debra Miller
Philadelphia Arts and Culture Correspondent

When I heard from Founder and Artistic Director Ginger Dayle that her New City Stage Company’s 2010-11 season would address the theme of women committing suicide, and that two of the three productions were comedies, I had to wonder how funny this topic could be, and who would see the humor in it? After attending the opening of Christopher Durang’s Miss Witherspoon on Saturday night, I am happy to report that everyone in the audience not only found the production hilarious, but also got the uplifting moral behind it.

Dayle’s inspiration for the season came from some real-life shocking statistics. She found in a study by the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine (2008) that the suicide attempt rate in the United States had risen for the first time in ten years, and that the highest increase was among Caucasian women ages 25 to 35, and over 45. And a study by Temple University (2009) confirmed that teens and young adults in Philadelphia have almost twice the national average of suicide attempts among high school and college students, with females having a higher rate than males. So Dayle sought plays dealing with this pressing issue, and scheduled Miss Witherspoon (to be followed by Pterodactyls, running March 3-27, and ‘Night Mother, on stage from June 9-July 3).

Miss Witherspoon tells the story of Veronica, a woman whose negative attitude makes it impossible for her to cope with the challenges of daily life and human interactions. She commits suicide, only to discover in the Bardo (the Buddhist equivalent of Purgatory) that she will need to reincarnate, to learn the lessons of earthly life and to repair her “brown-tweed aura.” The renamed “Miss Witherspoon” resists, but eventually learns through a series of disastrous incarnations and serial suicides that she controls her own fate and can choose happiness over despair.

Despite its morose theme, the screwball comedy by Durang, a resident of Bucks County and native of New Jersey, is anything but depressing. The script contains intelligent, thought-provoking, and laughter-inducing references to the traditions of Buddhism, Christianity, and Judaism, and to well-known movies, plays, and heroes from Pop culture, including the unlikely Rex Harrison, and The Lord of the Rings’ Gandalf.

New City Stage’s accomplished cast members morph in and out of their multiple lives and identities with ease. Julie Czarnecki is hysterically funny as the stubborn, long-suffering Miss Witherspoon, and has especially amusing scenes as a newborn baby and a pet dog. Indika Senanayake plays Miss Witherspoon’s wise spiritual guide, Maryamma, with appropriately good-natured calm and patience. Wendy Staton is over-the-top as Christ in the guise of a gospel-singing and Beatitudes-spouting African-American woman, and Ginger Dayle and Russ Widdall give sidesplitting performances as both the junkie, and the yuppie parents of the infant Witherspoon’s multiple reincarnations. Amy Chmielewski’s costumes provide perfect complements to the characters’ wacky personalities; particularly heavenly are the flowing hair, beard, and robes of Gandalf, played with godly command by the ever-impressive Widdall.

Miss Witherspoon is a work that successfully employs a comedic mode to make an important point: that life is worth living if you have a purpose and contribute to the betterment of humankind (and thereby also advance your own good karma). It’s a lesson that everyone should take to heart, and an entertaining, relevant production that should be seen.

Performances run through January 9 (including a special New Year’s Eve show and reception), on the mainstage at the Adrienne, 2030 Sansom Street, Philadelphia. For information and tickets (reasonably priced at $18-20), call 215.563.7500, or see http://www.newcitystage.org.

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