Woman Power

Saints and Hysterics has comic originality but is thin as a drama.

I enjoyed Tracy Shaffer Witherspoon'sSaints and Hysterics, currently being presented by the Paragon Theatre Company; I found myself for the most part interested and sometimes moved. But I'm not sure it holds together as a play. Genuinely original images alternate with a lot of picked-over feminist ideas, and the structure is elusive.

There's a lot about estrogen, birth, mothers and daughters, women in myth and the way society sees women. Of course, the concept of womanliness has power. Why else would patriarchal religions try so hard to contain it, classifying women as either saints or whores, declaring menstruation unclean, insisting women cover their bodies and their hair? Female exceptionalism -- the idea that somehow we're better, deeper, more inherently spiritual and in touch with the earth than men -- is a tempting response. There was a time when feminist poetry was full of earth mothers, wise crones and menstrual moons sailing through bloody skies. But like nationalist exceptionalism, which says that one's own country is always better and godlier than anyone else's, the feminist kind spawns distortion and injustice. Not to mention plain old silliness.

To be fair, Saints and Hysterics is neither self-righteous nor ponderous. It has a swift, translucent quality and a leavening of humor, and the playwright's language is a pleasure to listen to.

Carolyn Valentine (from left), Gina Wencel and Emily 
Paton Davies in Saints and Hysterics.
Carolyn Valentine (from left), Gina Wencel and Emily Paton Davies in Saints and Hysterics.

As the play opens, the Virgin Mary stands in an alcove offering definitions of saintliness and hysteria. A woman, Grace, remembers her mother in a group of charming monologues. Sometimes Grace interacts with a younger woman, Heather. A man dissects news reports about hormone therapy.

A third woman, Cate, steps into the action. We discover that she is a writer and director, and Grace is an actress; the monologues are part of a play the two women are working on together. Though Our Lady still hovers, the dialogue becomes realistic. Grace tells Cate that she wants to get pregnant, but her doctor anticipates problems because she's 37. Neither she nor Cate seem aware that many women get pregnant in their thirties. Later, Cate enters in extreme distress. She has discovered she has a medical condition that is bringing on premature menopause. She will never have a child.

The first act concludes with Grace delivering a lovely monologue about the dying mother; it's marred only slightly by the fact that gray ribbons fall from her palms when she opens her hands.

At this point, although the play seemed a mixture of experimentation, magic realism and naturalism, I didn't resent the ambiguity. Witherspoon was using familiar elements in somewhat unfamiliar ways. And it was hard not to feel affected by her images of fertility and redemption. There were a few pregnant women in the audience, and as I entered the lobby, I noticed that every one of them was smiling.

But in the second act, the problems of dramaturgy become clear. A lot of dramatic things happen, but they are never fully explored, and they don't drive the action. Although, as far as we know, she hasn't undergone any of the procedures recommended by her doctor, Grace is very pregnant. Cate has taken her play to Broadway and become a famed and celebrated playwright. In order to do this, she had to dump Grace, who helped develop the work, for someone with more star power. This is actually common in the theater world -- Sam Shepard discarded a group of devoted actors as he moved from off-off to Broadway and from Broadway to Hollywood -- but here it's just used as the pretext for a belated fight between the two friends, and then it's dropped. Sensible little Heather is saving her money for breast augmentation, another development that strains credulity. And Cate's health problems are accelerating. She's bleeding. (I imagine this why the Virgin Mary strips to reveal crimson underwear.)

All this is punctuated by some funny scenes with Oncko, the women's gay pal. Both Witherspoon's writing and Warren Sherrill's charming, textured performance save this role from stereotype.

Eventually, Grace and Cate end up at the hospital together -- Grace to give birth and Cate, apparently, to begin the dying process.

All of these events, though cloaked in mystical imagery, are simply undeveloped. It's as if Witherspoon found the idea of femaleness so compelling that she relied on that alone to provide the necessary focus and unity for her play. But blood and hormones, Virgins and stigmata don't paper over the obvious gaps. How did Grace get pregnant? Why does Heather suddenly reel off a bunch of sexist advertising slogans while winding a piece of cloth around her body? Bleeding may be a sign of uterine cancer, but it also could be caused by something else. If we're to believe in Cate's illness, we need to know more. What tests did she undergo? Why is she seeing a surgeon? The playwright also relies heavily on dreams -- always a tricky literary device. Dreams can add a sense of depth or provide resonant imagery, but they're no substitute for story.

Still, sound designer Jan Gosse's choice of music is inspired, and the acting is solid. Carolyn Valentine plays Grace with delicacy, feeling and perceptiveness, and Emily Paton Davies's Cate is appealing, equally believable as a successful director and as a vulnerable patient. Maggie Mowbray brings a nice matter-of-factness to young Heather and Gina Wencel communicates grace and compassion as the Virgin Mary.

 
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