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A buffet of afterlives in Miss Witherspoon 

When religions collide

Christopher Durang may not believe in God, but as the playwright's Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You and Mrs. Bob Cratchit's Wild Christmas Binge have demonstrated, he has a wicked fascination with religion. Rather than arguing that all religions are false, Durang's Miss Witherspoon impishly rubs our noses in the consequences of all religions being true. As the details play out in the current production at Carolina Actors Studio Theatre, the transition to an all-religions afterlife is as confused and chaotic as a trip to the DMV to get your name and address changed on your driver's license.

Veronica is our protagonist and host, an unwilling victim of the cosmos who has found that she is immune to anti-depressants. A giant chicken tells her the sky is falling — and in 1979, when the massive 170,000-lb. Skylab space probe began disintegrating in orbit, it was falling. Just not on the U.S. or NASA, which had launched the huge object into space without devising a method for returning it safely to Earth.

Not trusting in the lethal debris to end her life, Veronica commits suicide, a parallel example of bad planning. For yes, Veronica, there is an afterlife — many varieties of afterlife, as a matter of fact, depending on your religious beliefs. By forswearing Christianity, Veronica has left her classification and deployment up to the quirks of the bureaucracy over yonder. So she finds herself in a Tibetan bardo, an intermediate place between two lives.

Placed on a track to be reincarnated until her aura has completely matured and purified, Veronica wants to transfer to the more amenable Jewish afterlife. Unfortunately, switching out of your designated afterlife is as futile as appealing your incarceration in Guantanamo. Or at least it is through a couple of reincarnations that our plucky consciousness-averse heroine literally fights to the death. The sari-clad Maryamma, Veronica's mystic caseworker, finds her new client's aura murky and tweedy after numerous previous lives, including one in which she was married to Rex Harrison before he was Rex Harrison. You see, Veronica is just one of numerous ID changes for the soul that Maryamma nicknames Miss Witherspoon.

Everything seems so random and capricious that it's surprising how Veronica's next three lives interconnect — as an infant, a troubled pot-smoking teen and a dog. But there's plenty of fun along the way as we encounter the two sets of Veronica's parents, a teacher who tries to be helpful and, as word of Veronica's recalcitrance spreads across the heavenly sphere, two famous and illustrious higher-ups, one from the New Testament and the other from J.R.R. Tolkien. All these weirdos bear a deranged Durang stamp.

Cuing your multiple re-entries to the earthly plane, a teensy baby rattle serves as your ticket as you enter the sky-blue bardo at CAST. An electrified bag of Skylab debris hovers ominously over the rear of the center stage in Daniel Fleming's set design, a hazardous radioactive area that wisely goes unused throughout the production. Michael Vidal's loopy lighting, complemented by Sean Kimbro's sound design, keeps us from ever feeling grounded, while Barbara Wesselman's costumes range effectively from Middle Earth to Middle Happy Days America.

Christian Casper, directing for the first time at 2424 N. Davidson St., opted for a cast studded with newcomers. He uses the space beautifully and has his players well-attuned to Durang's playful venom. But it appears that Casper never stepped back sufficiently from the action during rehearsals to listen to the toll his pacing and spacing were taking. I was especially frustrated by Ana Rodriguez, who was intelligible no more than half the time in the key mentoring role of Maryamma. Perfectly cast as a heavenly princess, Rodriguez either spoke too softly or too quickly to deliver the full measure of Maryamma's serenity and teachings.

On the other hand, I only missed a few stray words from the energetic, neurotic Shawnna Pledger over the course of her multiple lives as Veronica/Miss Witherspoon. The role zigzags in and out of realism, particularly in Veronica's repeated replays of babyhood, and if you saw Pledger's work in the title role of Sylvia last fall, her life as a dog will come across as yet another delightful replay.

Stephanie O'Neill didn't always project powerfully enough from upstage, but she still ranged quite capably from trailer trash to June Cleaver clone in her two Mother roles. Sasha D. Manley also doubled in her Charlotte debut, most memorably as the divine — and barefoot — Woman in Hat. But it's Stephen Rowland who makes the funniest CAST debut in five different roles, getting his choicest bits when he sinks his teeth into a drunken dad and a Middle Earth wizard.

In the closing tableau, Durang drops the soul of Miss Witherspoon into a household where spiritual perfection actually seems attainable. Yes, yes, yes, he's telling us with more than a trace of mockery in his parental lineup, that'll be the day.

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