Against the Universe

Heckler protests the insult of existence; The Death of Bessie Smith presents Nurse Ratched's less gentle twin

In this production, Carla Noack plays the nurse as a smirking bully, and it's a wonderful performance. Despite her loudmouthed racism and perpetual hostility, she's a damned lively character, smart and funny with a seemingly contradictory love for blues singers. (Then again, this country never seems to lack racists who are fascinated by black culture.) We keep waiting for a voice to emerge that will equal hers, and in Albee's original script none ever does--even the tragic ending simply encourages more cruelty from the nurse. But with the addition of Witherspoon singing as Bessie Smith (craftily staged; the production flits back and forth between a hospital and a smoky performing hall), this production does offer a sort of vocal counterpoint. Smith, dying in an unseen car outside the hospital, might not be able to respond to the nurse, but her gorgeous music, heard throughout, offers its own chastisement. Hers are lusty, sociable, free-spirited verses, and they're infinitely more appealing than the nurse's bitter chorus.

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