Category: Archive

Comatose memories

February 17, 2011

By Staff Reporter

For openers, Mia Farrow’s cheekbones, even viewed from a bit of a distance, can make a reasonable claim to being the most spectacular calcium deposits this side of the White Cliffs of Dover.
If that weren’t enough, the forces that control the passage of time appear to have given her a permanent corridor pass. It’s virtually impossible to believe that Farrow made her professional debut in an off-Broadway production of Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest” in 1963, before television’s “Peyton Place,” before “Rosemary’s Baby,” long before “Hannah and her Sisters” and all the rest of it.
Just now, and only through Oct. 9, the actress is playing the central role in James Lapine’s “Fran’s Bed,” opening the 2005-06 season in Playwrights Horizons’ dazzling home, rebuilt extensively only a couple of years ago.
Directed by author Lapine, Farrow is Fran, a dying woman, partner in a somewhat threadbare 35-year marriage with Hank, and mother of two extremely divergent, fully grown daughters, Vicky and Birdie.
Fran, or some part of her, lies comatose and unresponsive in a Phoenix hospital bed, while her family quibbles and quarrels around her immobile form.
Being presented as a stockstill, bedridden figure, doesn’t stop the vigorously corporeal Fran, played with coltish, sprightly glee, interspersed with moments of aching moments of confusion and resentment, by the endlessly fascinating Farrow, from trotting through the highlights, and some of the lowlights, too, of the life which has brought her to the point where the nimble Lapine, as inventive as he is perceptive, picks up her story.
It would be nearly impossible, and perhaps even pointless, to experience “Fran’s Bed” without the recent events involving the life and death of Terri Schiavo coming to mind, and lurking there through much of the play’s swiftly-paced 85 minutes.
While in no way an outright polemic, Lapine’s slyly insinuating play has something on its mind and in its compassionate heart. What does a family do, “Fran’s Bed” asks, when a loved one is, or appears to be, in an irreversible, or, to use he word so frequently used of late “vegetative” state?
Lapine seems to be coming down, however tentatively, on the side of dignified hospice care, with “heroic” methods excluded, but with human dignity upheld as fully as possible.
Farrow’s Fran, dressed throughout in a modestly flowing white dressing gown, which she sometimes insists is “ivory” or “off-white,” particularly when accused of attending a wedding in an inappropriate outfit in the shade usually reserved for the bride, drifts through scenes from her life, encountering Hank, Vicky, Birdie, plus the married Eddie, with whom she once had an extramarital affair, and Dolly, the Caribbean caregiver hired by her family to look after her in her disintegrating state.
While the family, in general terms, is in favor of letting nature take its course, Dolly, addicted to God and to TV soap operas, represents the opposing path. On the sly, she more or less forcefeeds Fran, and claims that the figure in the bed has clasped her hand, and even opened her eyes, albeit briefly.
Fran, something of a pill addict, has swallowed everything she could get her hands on, and washed it down with cleaning fluid, a situation which somehow doesn’t deter the members of her family from debating whether or not her actions were accidental or intentional.
In an early scene intended to provide Fran with an explanatory, illuminating backstory, she meets Henry casually at a Jewish wedding. He describes her as “a shika goddess in a sea of Jews,” while she wonders why the groom stomped on the glass from which he’d sipped.
Nothing much is ever made of the religious differences. Fran and Hank bring to their marriage, and, in fact, it almost seems as though Lapine meant to employ the fact, and then got sidetracked and more or less forgot about it.
Fran bears her daughters, neither of whom seems deeply involved with the family, particularly when the going gets rough. Birdie has long since decamped for New York, where she has made a success of herself, primarily through a feminist-tinged Web site she’s named ugogirl.com.
Her family, particularly her sister, Vicky, wonders if perhaps she’s become a lesbian, and, in the event she hasn’t, suggests she might enjoy having a go at it.
Something of a cold fish, Vicky refuses when Dolly asks for her help giving her inert mother a sponge bath, explaining that she has no desire to see her mother naked. Dolly counters, logically enough, with the comment that Fran has seen her naked any number of times.
The sardonic Vicky, though she hasn’t detached herself from the family in the manner her sister has, is somehow no longer a fully functioning part of it.
Hank, who seems worn down and vaguely embittered by the events which have complicated his life, walks through his days without seeming to feel much of anything specific.
“Fran’s Bed,” which premiered at New Haven’s Long Wharf Theatre in 2003, has, in its reincarnation at Playwrights Horizons, an absolutely ideal cast, deployed by Lapine with grace and insight.
Actress Farrow moves in and out of the action, from the past to relatively recent events, and back again, with skill and ease, knitting a rather scattershot script into a solid fabric by sheer will and by dint of her belief in the material.
As Fran’s daughters, Heather Burns, as Vicky, and Julia Stiles, as Birdy, are a memorable study in contrast, yet retaining suggestions that they are, in fact, members of a single family, however dysfunctional it may have become.
The endlessly reliable Harris Yulin’s Hank is a flawless portrait of a man undone by his wife’s progressive disorientation, a decent enough individual lacking in whatever tools might help him to overcome the situation in which he finds himself.
Brenda Pressley’s Dolly is, in some ways, the fulcrum of Lapine’s play. At first seeming like a fixture in Fran’s hospital room, more absorbed in the television monitor that squeaks above her head than by the speechless woman lying in the bed, she eventually displays a position and a point of view opposing those held by the members of Fran’s family.
Two actors in the fine cast play double roles, making strong marks in each. Jonathan Walker appears first as the patient psychiatrist to whom Fran turns and to whom she pours out the details of the extremely sexual dreams she’s been having.
Later, the actor turns up as Eddie, a love willing to abandon his wife and follow Fran to Arizona when her family relocates there from their home in Michigan.
Marcia DeBonis is another medical operative interviewing Fran, but where she really scores is as Lynne, described in Lapine’s test as “a sales girl for the hospice,” exposing to the family a handful of the heartless details associated with a job she detests, and a measure of the humiliation heaped on the relatives of potential clients of the institution for which she will continue to work until she finds something better.
“Fran’s Bed” is bright, brisk, and frequently funny. With its serious core, however, it’s precisely the kind of play that can follow you out of the theater and haunt you for a while.
In fact, it did precisely that at a recent preview performance. An elderly couple entered the elevator and, as they approached the street level, commented on what they’d just seen.
“It struck a little too close to home,” said the husband, to which the wife replied, “You can say that again.” Then they walked out into the slight chill of the 42nd Street night.
Much of the effectiveness of “Fran’s Bed” stems directly from a kind of enduring fondness the audience seems to feel where Mia Farrow is concerned.
Only a relatively few months ago, the actress gave a striking performance which only a handful of people saw. She spent a couple of weeks in the off-Broadway company of “The Exonerated,” playing Sonny Jacobs a Texas wife who had spent many years on death row, convicted of the murder of a state trooper, a crime which DNA testing eventually proved she hadn’t committed.
The actress was a revelation then, and she’s luminous now as the lynchpin of James Lapine’s off-kilter but effective “Fran’s Bed.”

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