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Friday, May 12, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Theater Review

Once more, with feeling? No thanks, she'll take eternity

Seattle Times theater critic

The lady in the dowdy, mud-brown pleated skirt and jacket is having a very bad, very long day. How long?

That's hard to gauge: She is stuck in the Bardo (the Tibetan equivalent of Purgatory), where clocks aren't precisely set to Earth Standard Time.

Veronica, the grumpy protagonist of Christopher Durang's engaging though slender metaphysical comedy, finds out the hard way that life doesn't end just because you kill yourself.

Played to wincing perfection by the agile chameleon Anne Allgood, in the script's Seattle debut at ACT Theatre, this gal is one glum, "antidepressant-resistant" cookie. So she opts out of this vale of anxiety and despair "sometime in the 1990s."

Her angst has been compounding, she informs us, since giant pieces of the plummeting space probe SkyLab came crashing down into her yard in the 1970s. (They crash to jolting comic effect, in director M. Burke Walker's deft staging).

The subsequent appearance of Chicken Little, squawking about the end of the world, also brought her down.

All this is par for the course in the topsy-turvy comic realm of Christopher Durang plays.

Now playing

"Miss Witherspoon" by Christopher Durang. Tuesday-Sunday through May 28 at ACT Theatre, 700 Union St., Seattle; $10-$54 (206-292-7676 or www.acttheatre.org).

So are scattered, off-the-wall references to such retro icons as Rex Harrison and "My Fair Lady." And the theological debates between Miss Witherspoon (Veronica's nickname in the netherworld) and Maryamma (Christine Calfas), a serenely imperious Indian spirit guide, determined to escort Miss W. into her new lives.

But Miss W. is stubbornly anti-reincarnation. She's had it with living, and begs instead for an anesthetized eternity in the heaven reserved only for nonbelievers in the after-life — including Jews, Albert Camus and other famous existentialists.

As a Christian, however, Miss Witherspoon doesn't qualify. And though she's not playing along, karma just takes over.

With some cool hocus-pocus lighting effects (by Rick Paulsen) she's reborn as the baby of a nice, upscale couple. Then as the infant of a pair of trashy, monstrous stoners. And again as a dog — who in some ways has the best deal of all.

Earlier Durang farces like "Baby with the Bathwater," and "Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You" (which paints a far grimmer picture of the afterlife), have ended on darker notes.

But in this 2005 play, the uncommon theatrical humorist seems to have softened, a bit. By not letting Veronica slip into oblivion, he forces her to grapple with being alive — the terror, the self-absorption and, ultimately, the potential for doing some good.

One does wish Durang had fleshed out his 90-minute one-act more. Short as it is, there's some repetitiousness that makes you impatient for the next roll of the karmic dice.

But Allgood makes this crabby, reluctant seeker endearing, and her comic timing (physical and verbal) is expert.

Adding to the cosmic humor are the lithe and clever Calfas, Demene E. Hall as an addled teacher and a drop-by deity (beautifully begowned by designer Frances Kenny), and versatile Terry Edward Moore and Mari Nelson as a couple sets of parents.

Misha Berson: mberson@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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