Cusi Cram’s Novenas for a Lost Hospital (with dramaturgy by Guy Lancaster) presented by Rattlestick Playwrights Theater is an unusual site-specific theatrical event that pays tribute to the now defunct St. Vincent’s Hospital which for 161 years was situated three blocks from the theater’s location. Directed by Daniella Topol, the play is both uneven and scattershot in its non-linear format and content. However, it conveys a great deal of information in an entertaining manner and has some affecting scenes of life in the hospital in two eras: the 1849 cholera epidemic when it was founded in the mid-19th century and the AIDS crisis in the final years of its tenure in the late 20th century.
The evening begins with music hosted by Goussy Célestin and a company of singers in the courtyard of Saint John’s next door to the Rattlestick Theatre. After a water purification ceremony, the audience is treated to a dance by members of the acting company. The audience is then escorted up to the Rattlestick Theater which has been transformed into an art gallery with photographs and other memorabilia from the 161 year history of St. Vincent’s Hospital.
When the white hospital screens have been removed, we find we are in a chapel at St. Vincent’s with pews on three sides. Our genial guide is Elizabeth Seton (1774 – 1812), played by legendary actress Kathleen Chalfant with comic authority, founder of the first order of the Sisters of Charity in the United States who began St. Vincent’s, as well as the first American born saint. She is joined by the Venerable Pierre Toussaint (a self-effacing Alvin Keith), the slave who became a society hairdresser, using his vast income as a philanthropist for the poor, and has reached the second stage of sainthood for his good work as of 1996.
The dramatic part of the play is in nine parts, a novena which Seton announces for each, a Prayer for Re-membering, A Prayer for the Reluctantly Resurrected, A Prayer for the Forgotten, etc., and for which she lights a candle. Each leads to a scene from life in the hospital such as encounters between doctors and sisters (a doctor arguing with a nun about a proposed autopsy in 1849), nurses and patients (a nurse taking a patent who is a dancer/choreographer to an empty room to attempt a rehearsal), etc. The final novena requires the audience to walk in a procession to the NYC AIDS Memorial, two and a half blocks away, in view of the former site of St. Vincent’s Hospital, as part of a second musical celebration. A fitting, upbeat ending for the evening.
We learn that when the hospital closed on April 30, 2010, due to corruption and mismanagement it put 3,500 employees out of work. The last Catholic hospital in Manhattan, it was replaced by a luxury condo development. There are now no hospitals on the West Side from Park Row to 59th Street. The conflict between science and religion is made patently clear while both sides work to do their jobs.
Aside from the affable Chalfant, the rest of the cast plays two or three roles, some who are based on historic people, others who are composites. Particularly noteworthy is Kelly McAndrew feisty as both one of the founding nuns, Sister Angela, and as Nurse #1 during the AIDS epidemic. Natalie Woolams–Torres is poignant as the Irish Sister Ulrika as well as Nurse #2. Also memorable is Justin Genna as JB, the pseudonymous dancer/choreographer who believes he will have his illness beat if he just works hard at his art. Among other performers are Ken Barnett as Lazarus (a composite patient who keeps surviving) and Dr. Mott, a great doctor from the cholera epidemic; and Leland Fowler as Dr. Potter from the cholera era; Antonio, a 20th century hairdresser; and an anonymous patient. Barnett and Genna have a particularly moving scene as lovers saying goodbye as one of them passes away.
Cram’s dialogue shoehorns facts about the hospital into various scenes, and the dramatically lit scenes are only intermittently stirring. However as directed by Topol, Novenas is sufficiently varied that it works as theatrical entertainment as well as a history lesson. Carolyn Mraz’s scenic concept solves the problem of the many different scenes which take place in various locales while offering symbolic touches such as the blue butterflies hanging from the ceiling. Costume designer Ari Fulton has designed a full array of outfits that range from the early 19th century to the present. The subtle lighting by Stacey Derosier points attention in the right direction for each successive scene.
As a tribute to the now defunct St. Vincent’s Hospital, famous for serving poor people through several epidemics over a century and a half, Cusi Cram’s Novenas for a Lost Hospital is an unusual theatrical event covering a great deal of history. While not all of the parts of the performance are equally tied to the actual story, the site-specific evening is certainly a novel way to tell its story.
Novenas for a Lost Hospital (through October 13, 2019)
Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, 24 Waverly Place, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-627-2556 or visit http://www.rattlestick.org
Running time: two hours and 30 minutes with no intermission
Note: Check-in is at St. John’s in the Village, 218 W. 11th Street, around the corner from the theater; the prologue takes place in the outdoor courtyard of the Church of Saint John’s, then continues in the Rattlestick Theater, and the epilogue takes place two and a half blocks away at the NYC AIDS Memorial Park, 76 Greenwich Avenue. The event is not wheelchair accessible due to the narrow passage to the courtyard and the staircase at Rattlestick.