Ever since Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Annie Baker adapted Uncle Vanya for a 2012 production at the Soho Rep, her plays like The Flick, John and The Antipodes have becomes more Chekhovian: not a great deal happens but characters live out their daily lives. In her new play Infinite Life, she has gone even further with the silences and the pauses that she has become famous for. Under James Macdonald’s superb direction, we watch five women and one man read, sleep, talk and sip water or juice on the patio of a wellness clinic in Northern California trying to deal with their chronic pain. Not much happens but, on the other hand, these people reveal their whole lives before they complete their treatments and go back to their previous existences.
This subtlety could only be accomplished with a brilliant and accomplished cast and in Marylouise Burke, Mia Katigbak, Christina Kirk, Kristine Nielsen, Brenda Pressley and Pete Simpson we have just that. They represent a microcosm of American life: young/old, Caucasian, African-American and Asian, gay and straight, men and women. Each is there for another reason and each has a back story, all of which is revealed leisurely but compellingly in under 105 minutes. As the treatment consists of fasting and first drinking nothing but water and later Dr. Erkin’s juice concoction, they alternate between feeling enervated and high.
Our way into this hermetically sealed world is through the youngest patient, 47-year-old Sofi (Kirk) from Los Angeles, who has a bladder infection that no doctor can cure. She is attempting to read George Eliot’s massive Daniel Deronda which is she having trouble getting through, stuck on page 154. Periodically she calls her unavailable husband from whom she is recently separated and who never answers. She has just arrived for her treatment and she also narrates the play by announcing the passage of time from day to night, and the passing of days. We discover that she has had an unfulfilling sexual relationship with her husband and he has discovered her unconsummated affair with a co-worker. She flirts with Nelson (Simpson), in financial tech from San Francisco, the one male patient who is there before beginning radiation for colon cancer. He is in an open relationship with his wife but is very fond of her and his daughter. He has also been there twice before for earlier recurrences of his cancer.
Burke as Eileen, from Wichita, the oldest patient, a former Christian Scientist, is a kind of fount of wisdom correcting misinformation from the others. Her chronic pain which cannot be cured keeps her sleeping most of the time on a lounge chair, aside from commenting on remarks made by the others. She is a soothing presence, having come to terms with her pain and often apologizing for things beyond her control. Her pain and illness is revealed in her walk across the stage to her chosen lounge chair.
The other three women, all in their 60’s, are a kind of Greek chorus revealing tidbits of their lives, commenting on each other’s out loud thoughts and discussing hot topics that concern them. Nielsen plays Ginnie, a flight attendant about to retire, who is there for her vertigo among other illnesses. She lives with her partner and her partner’s daughter in nearby Rio Vista, California. She is reading a book by Zen Master Thich Nhet Hanh. Her most salient quality is her curiosity about the others, although some of her questions remain unanswered.
Elaine (Pressley) from New Hampshire is dealing with chronic Lyme Disease. She also has an abusive husband Craig who has recently undergone therapy. She likes to cook. She is doing a fine art coloring book which keeps her busy. She also is averse to cursing or anything explicit or sexual. Finally, there is Yvette (Katigbak) from Michigan who has recently developed breast cancer but has suffered from a list of illnesses, which is hilarious to hear her tell it in a deadpan voice. She reads a memoir of a woman formerly involved with a cult who founded a white water rafting company in Colorado run entirely by women.
Aside from revealing their life stories, the women talk about books, current events, philosophical problems, food, ecology, religion, family relationships and their medical histories. Each has a different story and each has dealt with pain differently. Director Macdonald, who has directed Caryl Churchill’s similar Escaped Alone, gets the most mileage possible out of the conversations and discussions. Unless you are waiting for violent action, Baker’s play is never boring, though it is extremely delicate and quiet.
The effective unit set by the collective dots is of a beige patio backed by a terra cotta breezeway wall. We are told (but don’t see) the view from the residents’ lounge chairs is of a parking lot with a bakery on the other side. The tantalizing smells (which we do not participate in) are a constant irritant to their diets. The almost poetic lighting by Isabella Byrd shifts for each scene as the days and nights roll by in various increments and time passes. The subtle costumes by Ásta Bennie Hostetter blandly downplay their differences in a situation where dress is unimportant. The one reaction is to the usually shirtless and buff Pete who comes and goes more than the others, but eventually shows up in a grey t-shirt.
Annie Baker’s Infinite Life, a title that suggests the microcosm depicted on stage, is a play that required intense concentration and listening ability. It is not for people who require action in their drama as nothing much happens but the characters reveal themselves, their symptoms and then move on. Under the direction of British director James Macdonald who has directed Baker’s Circle Mirror Transformation in London, the superb cast does not have a weak link and they seem to have worked together for years, so connected to each other’s nuances are they. This is a surprising play for the 42-year-old Baker, a work one might have expected from a much older writer. One wonders if she has gone through something like this recently in her own life. For those who like a theatrical challenge, the play minutely focuses attention on the mundane and the prosaic. But for Baker that is what defines a life.
Infinite Life (extended through October 15, 2023)
Atlantic Theater Company
Co-production with the National Theatre of Great Britain
Linda Gross Theater, 336 W. 20th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 646-989-7996 or visit http://www.atlantictheater.org
Running time: one hour and 55 minutes without an intermission