Annie Baker offers us another painful but beautiful slice of life in her play, Infinite Life at Atlantic Theater Company. As she did in such weird, wonderful works as Circle Mirror Transformation, The Aliens, and John, Baker dissects a seemingly mundane situation with little theatricality but with such unexpected humor and heartbreaking reality that we recognize ourselves in its quiet, shatteringly relatable moments. This time it’s five women and one man sitting on lounge chairs on a patio, discussing their illnesses, spouses, children, and philosophies as they fast and cleanse their systems as a means to deal with chronic pain. They are all patients at a Northern California clinic, formerly a roadside motel, opposite the parking lot of a bakery. There are brief mentions of larger-world crises such as school shootings and rampant wild fires, but these are only footnotes to the clients’ physical agonies. That’s the whole play, running just short of two intermissionless hours, but director James MacDonald and a sensitive cast bring this seemingly unremarkable piece to remarkable—if not infinite—life.
Each of the splendid actors speaks with such direct simplicity and moves with such deliberate slowness, the impression of their characters’ immense physical discomfort is conveyed shatteringly without screaming or histrionics. Their unadorned monologues describing their extreme physical discomfort are often greeted by audible gasps from the enraptured audience members. Although at the performance attended, the subject matter may have been too much for the three patrons who walked out during an intimate exchange between Sofi and Nelson, the only male patient, on the sexual dysfunction resultant from their chronic pain. This couple’s fumbled flirtation is the only conventional plot, but the lack of a strong story arc doesn’t really hurt the play.
Baker is asking difficult questions, such as how do you cope with a body that no longer does your bidding? How do you maintain a decent quality of living if you’re in excruciating physical agony? It’s a tall order and not all audiences may be up for it. Particularly since the play is as slow paced as the characters’ movements, directed with subtlety and grace by McDonald. Quite often they will sit in silence for several seconds and the only indication of the passage of time is given by Sofi informing us it’s a few minutes or several hours later. Isabella Byrd’s versatile, naturalistic lighting also delineates the various times of day and night. Often the dialogue is delivered in near darkness, only occasionally illuminated by cell phone light, echoing the characters’ feeling of loss and desperation.
In addition to acting as timekeeper, Sofi (a strikingly sensitive Christina Kirk) is the closest thing that passes for a main character in this ensemble-driven piece. At 47, she is the youngest female patient and is coping with an unwanted separation from her husband. She briefly finds solace with the attractive Nelson (simmering Pete Simpson) whose medical chaos is also taking over his life. Eileen (sympathetic and tender Marylouise Burke) calmly relives a hellish nigh-time bout with pain. Ginnie (an unusually subdued and incredibly effective Kristine Nielsen) cheerfully offers grim advice on getting through the fast by throwing up. Yvette (serene Mia Katigbak) delivers a litany of sickness as calmly as if she reciting a recipe. Elaine (equally tranquil Brenda Pressley) deals with her trials with coloring books and communicating with her cat via computer. Each is an intricate part of Baker’s gorgeous mosaic of tribulations and coping mechanisms.
In addition to Byrd’s commendable lighting design, the collaborative design group dots created the simple, evocative set, Bray Poor provided the naturalistic soundscape of traffic and birdsong and Asta Bennie Hostetter designed the casual, character-defining costumes.