The Off Center, through June 1
Running time: 1 hr, 30 min
Barbie may be a perfect metaphor for America. She is mass-produced, grossly disproportionate, and derived from petroleum. The problem with Sherry Kramer's When Something Wonderful Ends is not the initial metaphor, which is fun and funny, but the failure of the extended metaphor. The link between America's favorite plastic doll and its dependency on oil is paper-thin. The connection is one of simultaneity – young girls were playing with these dolls at the same time that America was sowing the seeds of its impending energy crisis – but the longer the play places the two side by side, the less the metaphor rings useful. When Something Wonderful Ends focuses on three subjects: Barbie, oil, and grief. The discussions about Barbie are fun, the discussions about oil are oversimplified, and the discussions about grief are where the value of the work, the beauty of the writing, and the honesty of the performance shine.
Kramer is the author and the character of this autobiographical one-woman show. Her mother died shortly before 9/11. The play takes place years later as she is packing up her childhood home. This leads naturally into the musings on Barbie and Barbie's possessions (dream house, dream car, dream dog) as Kramer is packing them up for sale on eBay. The packing of possessions also leads to a natural discussion of her late mother, a Jewish woman in a Baptist town. What does not follow so naturally is the political commentary. Since 9/11, the play tells us, Kramer has done a lot of research – "homework," she calls it, because your country is your home – into America's involvement in the Middle East. Though this research makes for some interesting outlining of political dates and events, it ultimately leads to the obvious conclusion that America is too dependent on oil. This notion is literally spelled out for the audience on set-pieces, as on a brown paper bag in large block letters: "Oil has made America what it is today." Here is where the Barbie metaphor goes from fun to infantilizing. Kramer tells us that we have to grow up, put away our toys, and deal with the sacrifices that will be required to pursue alternative energy. "The hardest thing about the American dream is waking up from it." Cheap oil is certainly a dream from which America is now and will continue to be waking, but Kramer treats the idea as if it were a revelation rather than an obvious problem facing our nation.
Chronicle contributor Barbara Chisholm plays Kramer in the show. A natural comedian, Chisholm tries her best to wring humor from the political material, but it's often too heavy and didactic; she's forced to do the work of a newscaster, spitting out dates and names and phrases like "petrochemically dependent." But when she's dealing with the play's other subjects, Barbie and grief, Chisholm is captivating. She enumerates the accessories for the Enchanted Evening outfit with both the joy of a girl and the sarcasm of a woman. The pièce de résistance of both the play and Chisholm's performance is a final speech in which Kramer recalls the act of picking out the clothing in which her mother would be buried. Chisholm delivers these sentiments with powerful simplicity.
The most beautiful ideas discussed in the play relate to the death of Kramer's mother, the tending of her grave, and discussions about Judaism and its lack of an afterlife. "The Jewish world is like Vegas. What happens here stays here." Kramer brings flowers to her mother's grave, an act she describes as a little miracle, "part of the miraculous rituals we do for our dead." And that, she goes on to explain, is the heart of religion: "To hold back the night. To ferry our loved ones from this land to the next." In the political commentary, Kramer's writing is heavy-handed. In the personal narratives, Kramer's writing is funny and moving. Her mother comes to life on that stage, a luminous creature full of conviction. She was a woman who loved her family and her country fiercely, who believed that kindness could change the world.
When Something Wonderful Ends is true to its autobiographical nature. It resembles a diary, rambling from one idea to another, strung together by the fact that they are housed in one person's mind at the same time. Kramer urges her audience to save the world from oil dependency, and she tries to tend her mother's grave. Though she has done both successfully, only the latter half makes for engaging theatre. Kramer has written a beautiful tribute to her mother. As one leaves the play, the glow of her mother's presence remains. If only we could all be so kind, so in love with our children and our husbands and our wives, so amazed at the beauty of our own lives. Perhaps then we would possess the will it will take to change the world.
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