Bed head

An unsung intellectual giant rules from the mattress in Wingspan's sparkling production

The essays and book-length ruminations of Susan Sontag, the American zeitgeist's preeminent fag hag, are accessible, friendly, almost conversational in their explorations of camp aesthetic and AIDS mythology. But her mammoth first novel, The Volcano Lover, from which I had the fortitude only to snatch scattered sections, felt like--horrors!--a veteran critic had written fiction. This is not always a problem, of course, as Edgar Allan Poe and Mark Twain and countless other examples of pundit-turned-poets will illustrate. It's just that the descriptive passages in Sontag's book felt once removed from their source, like she was observing them rather than having her characters experience them.

Nor is a critic writing a play automatically trouble; thank God no such prejudice barred George Bernard Shaw from the stage. For that matter, with her first theatrical venture Alice in Bed, given a Southwestern premiere by Wingspan Theatre, Sontag proves that she can escape the armchair. The last days of Alice James, Henry and William's brilliant but bed-ridden sister who died of breast cancer shortly before the turn of the century, are rendered as semi-Jungian dream mosaics with Sontag's lush, melancholic language.

But you can see how an undisciplined director could shatter those verbal mosaics into a hundred jagged shards, cutting to shreds any actor who attempts to work with them. Thankfully, director Pam Myers-Morgan, working with producer and star Susan Sergeant, has provided a swirling carnival showcase of light and dark, delightful fantasy and grim emotion, for Sontag's impressionistic memory play. It's a good choice, considering the copious amounts of opium Alice consumed to dull the pain. But hallucinatory loopiness might've simply made this Once Upon a Mattress filtered through a narcotic haze; what we get through these performances (with one very important exception) is fascinating, charming characterizations.

Alice in Bed touches on legitimate feminist outrage at the phenomenon of creative women being pressured into bed for vague "illnesses" during the late 19th century. Thankfully, Sontag didn't turn this into a plodding chick tract. The fact is, Alice James was as much a snobby classist as a victim of patrician patriarchy. Socially inept but intellectually elitist, she very much desired her withdrawal, and she had the dough to make it happen. And she was equally a victim of the intense intellectual competition orchestrated by her cold, overbearing poppa (Reg Platt, who also plays her non-entity mother), who declares Alice "the third-smartest of his children." This puts her behind William and Henry, but before two other brothers whose names are lost to the ages. Clearly, Alice's gender was a factor in the age when she lived, but it's not really what drove her deep inside the expansive regions of her own mind.

Alice in Bed doesn't have a plot, just a series of poetic sketches whose showpieces are a bedside conversation with brother Henry (Rene Moreno) and a Carrollian "Mad Tea Party" whose guests include Margaret Fuller (Kelly Lawrence) and Emily Dickinson (Laura Ainsworth).

The supporting actors are all stellar. I wish Sontag had written more about the tender relationship between Henry and Alice, so Rene Moreno could be on the stage longer. His slight befuddlement, his humor, and his wrenching concern for his sister are finely etched in a very short time. Kelly Lawrence is vibrant and boisterous as Margaret Fuller, pioneering transcendentalist journalist and a woman who, before she drowned with her son in a shipwreck, exercised her mind and her body with equal gusto. Laura Ainsworth is physically and temperamentally perfect as the dainty, retiring Emily Dickinson, who speaks only rarely (and in rhyme), but who haunts the tea party like a wallflower's specter. When Fuller begins to talk about what it was like to have a man on top of her, Ainsworth as Dickinson looks away shyly, puts her hand on the side of her face, and smiles with a pleasure she cannot conceal. It's a silent, lovely gesture, and a graceful illumination of character.

I must temper the praise by admitting that Susan Sergeant as Alice James sometimes threatened to tip over this buoyant production with her grim take on certain scenes. Sergeant the actress is a real pro: There are no cracks in the delivery of her weary, worrisome, over-cerebral sibling. And she is as engaging as the show that surrounds her when she's joshing brother Henry about his weight, or chatting with great interest to a thief (Ian MacKinnon) about his career while he steals her possessions.

But given that imagination was Alice's chosen refuge, her major source of pleasure in a largely ascetic life, and that Susan Sontag unfolds Alice's difficult personality across a backdrop of dreamy musing, Sergeant has chosen to stick us with a fairly joyless Alice James.

Nowhere is this more disruptive to the play's trippy mood than during an extended monologue in which James imagines an excursion to Rome. Delivered by Sergeant in a spotlight surrounded by darkness, this very long section of the play climaxes with the horror of meeting a little boy with a withered thumb. Sergeant seems to need a few hits of Dramamine the instant she begins this journey, so grumpy and dyspeptic is she. By the time the kid comes along, her anguish is overwrought. The supporting actors, director Pam Myers-Morgan, and her design team have provided Sergeant with a resourceful theatrical playground where she can cavort with one woman's intellectual brilliance and her loneliness. Sergeant did prodigious research for this role; now I wish she'd share all of her toys with the audience.

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