New Umbrella, Inc.’s second summer show, Wish I Had A Sylvia Plath, at Asheville Community Theatre’s 35Below, runs for one more weekend this month before preparing for an autumnal run Off-Broadway. This means Ashevillians have only a few more opportunities to see local girl-gone-pro Elisabeth Gray assume the identity of Esther Greenwood — disaffected, depressed and ten seconds from suicidal success — and explore her life in multimedia dark comedy phantasmagoria, complete with an anthropomorphic oven.
Esther Greenwood is the main character from Sylvia Plath’s iconic novel The Bell Jar. In Gray’s show (she is both author and solo performer) she is ten years older than in the novel, married with children, and as the audience shuffles in from the lobby to find their seats, shoulder deep in her baby-blue gas oven.
Greenwood’s character in the play is obviously based on Plath, whose novel is largely considered to be autobiographical. The action of the play takes place during what is to be Greenwood’s final ten seconds of life, stretched out by magnificent hallucinations recapping her life and demise.
Greenwood’s near-death journey takes her on whirlwind segments of a show called “Better Tomes and Gardens,” during which she serves as host of a surreal cooking show instructing one on the preparation “52 Liar Lasagna,” among other such dishes. In between chapters of the show, Greenwood converses about her life with her communicative oven friend, and is often aided by a film reel filled with dramatic scenes from her past. The show chronicles the relationship of Greenwood with her husband Ned Pughes (a play on Plath’s husband, Ted Hughes), his infidelity and her ill-fated struggle to be a perfect housewife and successful poet in the early 1960s.
Due to the historical nature of the inspiration material and the situational circumstances, the ending is fairly obvious, but that is not the point of the show. Rather, the narrative is an exploration of Esther’s life at the moment of her death, an assessment of sorts, and ultimately a revision in the effort to create “the perfect life” for the “Better Tomes” show. This revision is a heartbreaking manipulation of the facts to appear as if Greenwood felt loved, heard, and celebrated as both the perfect wife and accomplished poet, roles that Plath failed to achieve during her short life.
Gray is a tireless performer with the unflagging energy to perform an 80-minute show on her own, even while providing voices for every character on the film screen and the oven. Her professionalism is apparent, and she creates the arc of agony and defeat with grace. The film excerpts are the most engaging and exciting of the show, perfectly blending the tonality of dark humor and the absurd, and the segment depicting the meeting of Greenwood and Pughes is hilarious genius. Anthony Wilks’ direction is artful and spare, allowing Gray to flourish. The set’s inclusion of a quilted kitchen backdrop is a unique and artful touch.
The emotional impact of the end of the show bordered slightly on the hysterical rather than cathartic, and perhaps the blame could be laid both on the character of Greenwood and the exhaustion of the actress. Greenwood’s struggle between motherhood and artistry can come across as slightly pretentious at times, and stole a bit of the focus away from her mental imbalance made intolerable by her failing marriage. The intensity of the show’s end needs a bit more evenness after so much desperation, to let the audience find their footing in the finality.
Overall, Wish I Had A Sylvia Plath is an engaging, thought-provoking and (dare it be said considering the subject matter) entertaining theatrical experience, helmed by a talented Asheville native on her way to Off-Broadway.
Wish I had a Sylvia Plath. Co-presented by ACT and New Umbrella, Inc. Through July 17. Thursdays through Saturdays, 7:30 p.m.
Tickets: $15. Students 18 years of age and under: $10. 828-254-1320 or www.ashevilletheatre.org