By Helen Edmundson. Directed by Evan Frayne. A Bleeding Heart Collective production at Pacific Theatre, on Friday, March 1. Continues until March 23
Watching Mother Teresa Is Dead, I felt like I was in a revolving door: I kept going in and out of it.
In the opening scene of British writer Helen Edmundson’s 2002 script, a young English bloke named Mark shows up in India looking for his wife, Jane, who abandoned Mark and their five-year-old son and headed to the subcontinent, where she hoped to relieve suffering. Jane fell in with a charismatic guy named Srinivas and volunteered at this shelter for street kids. But then she lost her marbles. Frances, an expat artist and friend of Srinivas, found Jane weeping on the streets of Madras and brought her home. All is still not right with our young do-gooder, however: she’s carrying around a plastic shopping bag, which, she claims, contains a baby’s corpse.
Edmundson’s intelligent script explores altruism and the underlying notions of responsibility and motivation. In one of the more provocative passages, Jane says: “I sometimes think that we exaggerate our feelings for our kids. We use them as an excuse for not acting properly.”
Skinlessly compassionate, Jane is buffeted by the murky needs of those around her. Srinivas urges Jane to stay in India rather than returning to England, which Mark is begging her to do, but does he want her to stay because he’s hot for her, because the ideologically driven young man sees her as a follower, or because he thinks it’s in her best interests?
Some of Edmundson’s scenes sing, including a trio in which Frances, who has a thing for the much younger Srinivas, indirectly tries to establish her claim on him and warn Jane off. Slippery subtext makes this exchange work, but others are painfully on-the-nose. In Mark and Srinivas’s argument about 9/11, for instance, their first-world and developing-world positions could have been drawn from templates.
Evan Frayne helms this Bleeding Heart Collective production and, during Act 1, I kept thinking, “Man, you can sure tell this show is directed by an actor.” Everybody on-stage is on too long a leash. As written, Mark yells a lot but, playing Mark, Sebastian Kroon yells his way through the whole first act. It’s unmodulated. Off the top, Katherine Venour (Frances) is so prim she feels like a nanny.
But everybody in this cast is a gifted performer and, on opening night, they all settled down in Act 2. Kayvon Kelly’s Srinivas is a little twitchy, but he’s also funny and charming. Kroon tones Mark down and becomes touchingly vulnerable. Venour and Julie McIsaac (Jane), two of the most transparent actors in town, channel pure emotion.
There is a caveat to all of this: everybody staples their accents to their characters very loosely. Nobody on-stage pronounces Frances as a British or British-educated person would, and dialects come and go according to the intensity of the feeling and, apparently, whim.
The play’s resolution is suspect. Jane suffers from the kind of mental malady—beloved of dramatic writers—that has vague but thematically convenient symptoms and can be more or less cured by a single, dramatic revelation.
Still, Mother Teresa Is Dead makes you think, and God and all of his saints know that most entertainments these days don’t do that.