Mother Teresa is Dead: A Whodunit

The moral ambiguity of world inequality warrants a mystery-style plot.

Nikki/Luke

Jane (Nikki Weaver) freezes like a deer in a tractor beam as Srinivas (Luke Bartholemew) tries to convince her to continue abandoning her family to work with him in humanitarian aid.

A week into its run, much has been said about Portland Playhouse’s “Mother Teresa is Dead.” The Oregonian lauded Nikki Weaver’s nuanced acting even as The Mercury decried it. (Like it or not, the Playhouse co-founder tends toward fragile madwoman typecasting.) Both publications complimented Gretchen Corbett and Luke Bartholemew, and kindly overlooked Chris Harder’s spotty cockney accent in favor of his competent emotional performance. But neither fully processed the story’s overarching moral imperatives—nor did Playhouse: “Do I think Mother Teresa had an answer to the question of responsibility?” wrote director Isaac Lamb in the production’s playbill. “No. And I’m fairly certain [playwright] Helen Edmundson doesn’t either. But I think the mark of a truly skilled playwright is one who can raise a difficult question and then bring to life complex, imperfect, and sympathetic human characters to wrestle with it.”

Q’s…with no definitive A’s.

How do we help a suffering world? And even when we manage to—do we do it for the right reasons? How do you balance “saving the world” against “looking out for your own”?  Would you sacrifice your nuclear family for your universal brethren, or vice versa?

Sunday’s talkback: as light (and savory) as a poppadom.

Yesterday’s talk-back, complete with testimonials from two Peace Corps alums, chewed over one or two issues, but offered no resolution. Almost too quickly, the matinee disbanded into a delicious Indian food potluck and a Bollywood dance lesson from Indian standard-bearer (and Peace Corps progeny) Anjali Hursh. “Hey,” the fundraising event seemed to conclude, “when we can’t fix other countries’ problems, we can at least appreciate their unique cultural splendors.” While the question of whether such an exercise by Westerners does the world substantive good is just one more for the pile, suffice to say it made for a nice afternoon. To be fair, Playhouse may be soft-selling the dialogue for now to entice more participants into their upcoming April 3 Mercy Corps Action Center field trip (RSVP to ruth@portlandplayhouse.org).

A NOVEL APPROACH: WORLD CONCERNS MEET MYSTERY TROPES

The Plot

“Mother Teresa is Dead” opens as baffled Englishman Mark arrives in India to reunite with Jane, his wife who went missing seven weeks prior. Jane greets his disbelief with a strange explanation: her sudden departure for India was spurred by mass-mailings she received from charity orgs that urged her to help the less fortunate. But her frayed demeanor, the reported timing of her first onset of altruism (post-partum), and her seeming detachment from her own son are earmarks of mental decline, not moral awakening. Ironically, she’s become a charity case herself, relying on older Englishwoman, Frances (a holdover from Brit imperialism), for shelter and emotional support as she debates whether to continue teaching kids in a nearby community center under the mentorship of (handsome) local caseworker Srinivas.

The Treatment

Raising heavy questions indeed, playwright Hellen Edmundson risks the pitfall of preachiness, but veers clear of it by framing the plot less like a human-interest documentary than a murder mystery. Mother Teresa (aka the spirit of selfless charity) is dead. Who killed her? Edmundson and Playhouse play detective with devices lifted straight from Hitchcock and Christie.

The Locked Room

We’re only exposed to four characters: English husband Mark and wife Jane, older English divorcee and artist Frances, and Indian (but English-educated) humanitarian aid organizer Shrinivas, who comes and goes. If this were Agatha Christie, these four would’ve been locked into a room as the crime suspects, but here, they share a large estate, somewhat besieged by an impoverished local population. Standing in for a more conventional “crime” are two more nebulous and giant crimes (worldwide human inequity and failed personal lives). The plot, like an impartial detective, shifts the two burdens of blame onto each of its characters—and every time, more or less, the yoke fits.

The Discredited Witness(es)

Egalitarian in its distribution of doubt, this play casts a shadow over the supposed motives of each character it profiles. Jane poses as a bleeding heart, but we’re led to suspect her of a blighted brain—but she’s only the first of the four to crumble under questioning.

Her husband Mark fancies himself a simple, upstanding family man concerned for his wife’s well-being, but the audience sees a domineering husband and a xenophobic tourist. Frances, a seemingly austere, balanced, wise elder and voice of reason, gradually reveals that India for her is less a spiritual sanctuary than a hedonist escape from her failed marriage. Srinivas, who starts out with the moral high ground, is the slowest to reveal his own turpitude: vengeful fantasies against the West, a disdain for interpersonal commitments, and a slyer but no less destructive variation of Mark’s desire to control women. None of these people, the play proposes, is doing all the right things for the right reasons. And maybe, the text suggests, such a stance would be humanly impossible.

The MacGuffin

Have you ever heard of a “MacGuffin?” I hadn’t. But I figured where we have achingly specific terms for devices like the Red Herring or Deus et Machina, there MUST be one for the all-too-common dramatic scenario where we’re shown a box or bag and told that it contains something important, but we don’t get to glimpse within until climax time. Sure enough, such a thing is a “MacGuffin,” as coined by Alfred Hitchcock.

Those who might otherwise be bored or flummoxed by complex moral dilemmas, can instead hang suspenseful speculation on “Teresa”‘s conspicuous MacGuffin: a white plastic bag that Jane clutches to her body and refuses to let out of her sight, hysterically (and implausibly) muttering something about “a baby.” What the hell is in there? We don’t get to find out for a long, long time.

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