Saturday, Oct. 7, 2006 | Even knowing what I knew about Christopher Durang’s plays – the best known are “Beyond Therapy” and “Sister Mary Ignatius Explains it All” -I had no idea what to expect from “Miss Witherspoon,” currently running at the San Diego Repertory Theatre through October 29. Durang’s website (you guessed it: calls the play “the story of a woman who has committed suicide and is refusing to reincarnate. Much of it takes place in the netherworld, some of it on earth. It is a comedy, but perhaps ‘a comedy to make you worry.’” The Rep’s program, on a recent preview performance, informed us that we were seeing Durang’s response to 9/11. Uh-oh, I thought, that can’t be good – or funny.

It is both. Most importantly “Miss Witherspoon” is that elusive creature called good theater -challenging, risky, even off-putting at times, but thoughtful, provocative, and incisive. Durang’s targets are many: hypocrites, cynics, and bigots of all disguises – and he hits many a bulls’ eye. And can the play really do all this and still be funny? It’s very funny – mining veins of humor from the subtle and sophisticated to the zany and broad, but never stooping to sophomoric. The nearly full house seemed to appreciate the author’s outlook, and regularly burst into laughter. The diverse age of the crowd tells me it is not just for one audience, but for anyone who can laugh at her/himself.

This is a play that absolutely could not work without a very talented leading actress, and the Rep is blessed to have in the role the ever-astounding Melinda Gilb, who San Diegans know is capable of a range of characters, but who simply outdoes herself here. Completely believable as a middle-aged matron or a sulky teenager, with plenty of changes en route, Gilb has simply become the brazenly snide, dryly bitter, wittily manic, sometimes patronizing, but ultimately winning Miss Witherspoon. Her supporting cast is perfection – The chameleon-like Steve Gunderson shines as a variety of men, from sleazy to saintly, and a role that would be easy to overplay, the endearing Maryama, is handled expertly by Jo Anne Glover.

The set design and costumes were minimal but fun, and the staging was seamless; director Delicia Turner Sonnenberg, employing only simple set pieces, minimal props, and a few music cues, transports us through time and space from a charming kind of heaven (actually a way-station of sorts, but I won’t tell you the plot) to a rather scary hell-on-earth.

The play’s end found me energized – not only by the prolonged spates of laughter and the author’s hopeful insights, but also by seeing such a vivid portrayal of the ongoing search for meaning, in our own lives and the lives of others, that we call life.

“Miss Witherspoon” plays at the Lyceum Theatre now through Oct. 29.

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