Attending an Annie Baker play is like being a fly on the wall. The author makes no concessions to a theater audience. Time often unspools slowly. Characters think and speak realistically. Scenarios are rigorously unembellished.
Six women from ages 47 to 80 (later, one man) are temporary residents at a low end health spa. Lounge chairs face a parking lot. Guests fast on water or occasionally juice for various lengths of time in hopes of alleviating chronic pain by cleaning out their systems. Some are putting off chemotherapy.
Christina Kirk (Sofi), Kristine Nielsen (Ginnie), Mia Katigbak (Yvette)
Notably, therapeutic fasting for 8-10 consecutive days…has been shown to be a safe treatment method with very high adherence rates in patients with chronic pain disorders. Extended fasting may even be preferred…used in conjunction with, or as an alternative to conventional medications… The National Library of Medicine
The women talk, read, silently lie in the sun, and retreat to their rooms entering and exiting a single set. Neither victims nor martyrs, they speak matter-of-factly with discomfiting detail about longtime ailments. (Baker must’ve done considerable research.) The passing of hours and days is noted by the youngest, Sofi, as she enters and exits.
Sofi (Christina Kirk) is dealing both with physical pain – a bladder issue – and estrangement from her husband due to her having a phone sex affair he’s just discovered. (Actual sex is horribly painful.) She calls him crying every night, leaving messages, but also telephones her ersatz lover.
Pete Simpson (Nelson)
Eileen (Marylouise Burke), the eldest, has been to the facility before – between rounds of chemotherapy. “I feel fantastic,” she says as Ginnie helps her to a lounge chair. Married 50 years with children, maternal instinct manages to rise above suffering to gently connect with Sofi. Burke is simply wonderful in the less is more mold.
Ginnie, (Kristine Nielsen), a former flight attendant, experiences “autoimmune thyroid stuff, but I’m here for my vertigo.” The often deadpan droll character eschews conversational boundaries. She’s brought to life by Nielsen’s understated performance.
Yvette (Mia Katigbak) unleashes a litany of illness with the nonchalance of reading a list of daily errands. She’s even reading a memoir by a fellow sufferer. Having her bladder removed eliminated one source of pain.
Elaine (Brenda Pressley) has chronic Lyme disease. She doodles in a coloring book. The only one we eventually see with juice, she’s the first to go home.
Christina Kirk (Sofi), Marylouise Burke (Eileen)
Nelson (Pete Simpson) is a good looking, successful, self-assured man accustomed to attention and, except for pain, the good life. He and his wife have an open relationship which is not working. Sex is like shaking hands. He ruffles the otherwise sanguine group whenever present. Ginny applies lipstick. After a rather bizarre conversation about sex, he propositions Sofi.
All the actors are very fine. “A little high from fasting for days,” the state is credible without overplaying. Director James Macdonald, who previously helmed Baker’s work, understands her tempered rhythm and insidious plots. Sofi’s singular physicality works wonderfully.
Pain is ordinary. Equilibrium the goal. “A minute of this is an infinity,” Elaine says. The piece’s cumulative message: No one can really understand another’s pain, but human connection might allay it.
Photos by Ahron R.Foster
Opening: Kristine Nielsen(Ginnie), Brenda Pressley (Elaine), Marylouise Burke (Eileen), and Mia Katigbak (Yvette)
Infinite Life by Annie Baker
Directed by James MacDonald
Through October 14, 2023
Atlantic Theater Company
Linda Gross Theater
336 West 20th Street