INFINITE LIFE Brings Infinite Uncertainties — Review
Upon its first staging in 2015, Annie Baker’s eerie, melancholic masterpiece John was led by the legendary Georgia Engel, an actress best known from The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Engel’s goofy yet mournful delivery style proved a perfect fit with Baker’s voice, and her work as a strange bed & breakfast owner was a marvel: emotionally precise, yet somehow essentially unknowable.
Engel was also a devout Christian Scientist and, in keeping with her religion’s beliefs, did not consult doctors. So when she died in 2019 at age 70, the cause was unknown—or listed in obituaries as simply, “undetermined.”
We do not know if Engel’s beliefs wavered in life. But Baker’s writing has never favored clear answers or emotional certainties. So it is a fitting if amusing testament to Baker’s dogged uncertainty that her riveting new play Infinite Life, which opens tonight at the Atlantic Theater Company (in a co-production with London’s National Theatre), includes a Christian Scientist character who is experiencing a crisis of faith. The unknowable looms, more powerful than ever.
Infinite Life takes place on the back porch of a treatment center for chronic illness, somewhere in Northern California. Five women (and later, one man) lounge on lawn chairs for hours on end. The facility is nice, but not fancy–the shabby patio faces out onto a parking lot. (Scenic collective dots designed the aptly plain set.) The treatment regimen, which sounds questionable, consists primarily of fasting and juice cleanses.
The play follows Sofi (Christina Kirk) through a seven-day fast. Attempting to pass the hours, the women philosophize on relationships, pornography, climate change and more, in discussions ranging from the inane to the occasionally profound. The debates rarely reach a clear end point or resolution, and grow less cogent as everyone goes longer without food.
The play’s greatest joy is simply spending time with these characters as they shoot the shit. Under James MacDonald’s meticulous direction, an ensemble of seasoned vets digs pleasingly deep into Baker’s rich dialogue and aching pauses. Brenda Pressley and Kristine Nielsen channel decades of lived experience with the slightest shared glance. Any concern that chronic illness can’t yield comedy is quickly dispelled by the perfectly deployed Mia Katigbak, who delivers a seemingly endless, truly hysterical monologue detailing every ailment she has ever suffered.
Christina Kirk is remarkable as Sofi, a protagonist who seems closer to Baker herself than any in her previous work. Kirk’s wry, disengaged affect falls away to reveal vast depths of self-hatred. The character’s most anguished moments are staged in near-total darkness, and Kirk’s physical work in these scenes is extraordinary, suggesting unbearable pain with a small twitch or a quiet groan.
Baker is not looking to demonstrate pain as a screaming, thrashing thing. Most excruciating is a moment when Eileen (Marylouise Burke) simply freezes up. The shift is entirely silent, but as Burke’s face changes and her legs shake, the agony is palpable. When the same character does have an especially rough night, it is described rather than shown, in a wrenching monologue which Burke delivers with care and restraint.
That monologue is one of two in which characters break from the play’s reality and speak as a narrator, demonstrating a structural uncertainty baked into the play’s dramaturgy. There is a fourth wall, except when there isn’t; Sofi informs us how long has elapsed between scenes, then abruptly stops doing so. Uncertainty lives in the very form of Baker’s text.
Baker does allow some space for broader takeaways, with one reference to a school shooting (a sick society, in decline) and mentions of an approaching wildfire (a planet in intensifying distress). But she mostly avoids pain as a metaphor. This play is about actual, human pain.
Yet even within that pain, there is an uncertainty—not around whether it is real, but how best to survive it. The women’s accounts leave an uncertain sense of their treatment’s effectiveness. Yet doctors have no clear answers for chronic pain either, and medicine is often unreliable in respect to female bodies.
When one character suggests–in a deliberately unsatisfying final scene–that true healing might take place in the mind, Baker isn’t endorsing the notion. But she is acknowledging how little we understand our own bodies, and the impossibility of fully separating emotional and physical pain. In previous plays, Baker has tended to let her guard down a little in the final moments and provided some catharsis. But here, there is no answer to be known, so she denies us even that comfort. Tomorrow might hurt less—or, it might not.
Infinite Life is now in performance at the Linda Gross Theater through October 8, 2023. For tickets and more information, visit here.