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Defending your death 

Miss Witherspoon goes for the last laugh

If anyone can get a laugh about a 2-week-old infant committing a grisly form of suicide, it's Christopher Durang. Going back to his early comedy Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You, the playwright has made a signature style of a very black -- and very influential -- brand of stage humor. Durang explores American middle-class suffering through a brand of dark satire so deadpan it can border on glib.

In his new comedy Miss Witherspoon, Durang renews his interest in cruel jokes and big ideas, this time glancing at karma, global chaos and what happens after you die. For a play concerned with the afterlife, Miss Witherspoon's script exists in a kind of limbo between light comedy and heavy issues, although Joe Gfaller directs a highly entertaining production at Marietta's Theatre in the Square.

A chatty woman in a brown tweed suit, Miss Witherspoon (Shelly McCook) recently killed herself -- at least once. We meet her in a celestial waiting area called "the Bardo," where she explains her dissatisfaction with life and wish to chuck it all. However, the rules of the afterlife require her reincarnation, against her strenuous objections. At times, she can resist being reborn in another body, other times she sabotages the divine plan for her to live life anew (hence the baby-suicide joke).

"You know, in the afterlife, I'm considered to have a bad attitude," she remarks.

For such an obstinate character, Miss Witherspoon's rebellion can seem like a heroic assertion of individual choice against the universal will. She convincingly argues that sometimes life isn't worth living, particularly given the awful childhood she endures as the daughter of pig-ignorant junkies (Mary Emily O'Bradovich and Robin Bloodworth, both outrageously funny in multiple roles). As her sari-clad spiritual guide, Suehyla El-Attar's serenity turns amusingly testy.

Not unlike Albert Brooks' 1991 film Defending Your Life, Durang devotes considerable time to rehashing the Bardo's rules, some of which are fairly clever. Because Jewish people and existential philosophers don't technically believe in "heaven," they experience the afterlife as being like "general anesthesia." "I want that one!" Miss Witherspoon exclaims. The rules don't hold up to a lot of scrutiny, but by the end permit Miss Witherspoon to share the stage with a renowned messiah as well as a character from J.R.R. Tolkien. The primary colors of Mary Parker's lighting and the famous silhouettes in Kelly Allison's set neatly fit with Durang's pop-savvy tone.

Some of Miss Witherspoon's lives unfold like comedy sketches, but the play features a surprising surplus of monologues. When she stops to tell her audience about her problems with the crucifixion, it's like Durang wants to get some op-ed-page observations off his chest, rather than just dramatize his intriguing, supernatural premise.

She'd be insufferable if portrayed by the wrong actor, but fortunately, Shelly McCook makes her good company, capable of indignant complaint without exhausting the audience's patience. She also reveals grace and inventiveness with physical comedy. Whether playing a panting canine or a goo-gooing infant, she makes funny faces without seeming like mugging. Her sense of how "big" is big enough never fails. But even she has trouble convincingly playing the reversals at the resolution, which argue for facing life's difficulties head-on.

Miss Witherspoon's conclusion, touching on post-9/11 political strife and global-warming-style weather changes, conveys the sense that Durang wants to comment on how upsetting modern times can be. But the play's running jokes about Rex Harrison and My Fair Lady feel like he wants to insulate himself from a serious discussion, rather than really grapple with the problems of suffering a la Dostoevsky. If someone accuses Miss Witherspoon of being too frivolous, Durang can always say "Just kidding!" as his last resort.

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