theater review

The Mortal Truths of Annie Baker’s Infinite Life

Christina Kirk and Marylouise Burke in Infinite Life.
Christina Kirk and Marylouise Burke in Infinite Life. Photo: Ahron R. Foster

I have a visceral memory of sobbing on the couch in my mother’s arms at about 5 or 6 years old, saying, over and over again, “I don’t want to die.” Nothing had happened. I had simply reached the realization that one day, I would no longer exist. I also have a memory — I’m less certain about the year — of reading Natalie Babbitt’s Tuck Everlasting and realizing, somewhere quiet at the back of my mind, how nightmarish the idea of living forever actually is. How incommensurate with our small, breakable animal bodies — this awful, awesome notion, the infinite.

From the name onward, nothing in Annie Baker’s fearless new play Infinite Life is laboriously explained; everything is prismlike and expansive. The play unfolds gently, gradually, through implication and deceptively casual conversation. Baker and her director, the superb and unshowy James Macdonald, share a grasp of tempo and dynamic so assured and expertly patient that your heartbeat at the end of Infinite Life’s intermission-less hour and three-quarters may well belie the fact that no one onstage has ever raised their voice. The play shines light through the facets of its title in at least two directions, neither of them easy to face. Look at it one way, and see how comically absurd we are: “Listen, listen,” insists one of Baker’s characters, “No energy can be destroyed. Energy just continues … The energy from the Big Bang has been radiating throughout the universe for millions of years. And then it uh … it turned into microwaves or some kind of wave and that thing, that static on the old televisions, that fuzz, that’s the remnants of the Big Bang making itself known through your screen.”

Look at the title another way, and the view is more chilling. Baker’s characters are all residents at an unnamed “water fasting” clinic somewhere north of San Francisco. They are all there because they are in chronic, indescribable pain. From Lyme disease, from “auto-immune thyroid stuff,” from an array of cancers and incurable, hardly comprehensible conditions with names like horrible poetic devices. Scleroderma. Lichenplanus. Spondylosis. Labyrinthitis. Polymyositis. Pericarditis. A Homeric catalogue of misery.

“I thought I’d try to tell you what [the pain is] like,” says Sofi (Christina Kirk), one of the two youngests visitor at the clinic, leaving a message for the husband who has probably left her. “It’s like the center of a blowtorch. It’s also like throbbing. It’s like endless throbbing like throb throb throb throb like tick tock tock endless into infinity time.” Life may be shorter or longer, but pain, like a ruthless maestro, or like Los Angeles traffic, can crank the tempo down to larghissimo, stretching minutes while still stealing time. “I remember thinking … this is a nightmare. I’m living in a nightmare,” kind, elderly Eileen (Marylouise Burke) banters gently, as she recalls trying to take her daughter to violin lessons via the highways of L.A. But Sofi moans the same words — “This is a nightmare. I’m living in a nightmare.” — over and over to herself in the middle of the night, alone in the dark, unable to sleep, doubled over in pain. There’s infinity for you.

I haven’t put a dutiful adjective in either of the above parentheticals. That’s because the ensemble of Infinite Life is, across the board, wildly good. There’s a concerto happening: a mature, meticulous piece for six instruments where everyone is playing virtuosically, without ostentation. Kirk’s terrifically dry, wary Sofi — suffering, self-loathing, longing for the obliteration of sex — is the play’s structural center. It’s her journey we follow from intake to release, and it’s the softening fog of her memory in which the play is actually set. (Along with Isabella Byrd’s crisp, beautiful, and impressively funny lighting design, Sofi can jump us through time with a deadpan glance outward and a simple spoken stage direction: “Five hours later.” “Twenty-five hours later.” “Eight hours after that.”) But harmonizing with Kirk’s are five performances of equal force and elegance.

Kristine Nielsen, Mia Katigbak, and Brenda Pressley — often lying side by side atop the clinic’s fleet of drab poolside chairs — make up a pitch-perfect chorus of wry, contemplative veterans in the ranks of bodily breakdown. They’ve all lived with their pain long enough to wear it almost lightly: They don’t wallow, they make small talk. Even when that talk is actually terribly big, they keep each other aloft with a kind of tacitly agreed-upon tone. Everything from the illnesses that have ravaged them to that riff about the Big Bang (delivered by Nielsen, who’s wonderful as the sharp and curious Ginnie) to the green juice they finally get to drink after days of nothing but water to the tome Sofi is reading (“Daniel Deronda,” she keeps explaining, half-heartedly) to Elaine’s abusive husband is treated with a soft, genuine interest, an accepting calm. (There’s another, more wrenching way to look at this shared temperament, which is that all of these bodies are too spent for animation and anger. They are like exhausted actors: too tired for armor, too tired to avoid truth.)

Pressley’s gentle smile is at once endearing and deeply unnerving as she describes how her husband is now, after visiting a couples’ retreat, contract-bound to “stop screaming” at her if she uses the safe word chimichanga. And as the logical, unfaze-able Yvette, Katigbak is properly hilarious in a nature-versus-nurture debate with Ginnie. Her pensive, unblushing directness is a complete delight — and so are the electric ripples of discomfort she sends through the audience as she ponders the “provocative question” Ginnie has asked.

This is part of Baker’s brilliance: to ruffle feathers with the calmest of breezes. At one point, Sofi began opening up to the clinic’s one male visitor, Nelson (Pete Simpson, in a perfectly observed opaque, rectangular guy-guy performance), about the ulcers all over her bladder, the blood in her urine, and the constant pain in her clitoris. When she got around to describing how she could still orgasm even though it’s excruciating, though slightly less excruciating “if someone fucks me in the ass,” three people sitting in front of me had had enough. Exit, house left, aggressively. Good for Baker. Good for Kirk and Simpson, who are up there playing with such lightness and care through the kind of brave work that doesn’t shout about its bravery. How marvelous, that theater can still offend! How sad and strange and fascinating — and marvelous? — that it should offend by conversing calmly about painful truths.

Despite the peachy terra-cotta-and-breeze-block patio that keeps Infinite Life’s characters fenced in (the simple and excellent set is by the design collective dots), Baker’s play feels capacious — ever widening its arms to hold more humanity, more searching spirit and more troubled flesh. Sofi is our avatar for the latter: Trapped in and tormented by her breaking body and her overwhelming desires, she chants fearfully into her husband’s voicemail, “Maybe I am a monster / My body is monstrous / My mind is monstrous / So I’m a monster.” And, as on Shakespeare’s enchanted isle, in counterpoint to the monster is a creature of air: Burke’s extraordinary Eileen. Small and bent and fragile enough to put everyone subtly on alert as she shuffles across the patio to her pool chair, Eileen often seems the sweetest and most sanguine of the group. She is a semi-lapsed Christian Scientist who would rather not hear people curse, and she has, she eventually admits to Sofi, been attempting to free herself from what Paul called “the carnal mind”:

“I used to believe … that the pain and illness are just a signal that one has to get rid of an old way of thinking,” she says softly. “In other words that the pain is a lie … The belief in matter and not spirit. And so we have to resist pain because resisting pain is resisting what isn’t true … I’m not saying I believe this anymore,” she goes on, sensing the wretchedness in Sofi, who can only hear in her words the implication of personal guilt. “But I’m not saying I don’t believe it anymore.”

But then there’s the messy truth, which is that Sofi and Eileen aren’t actually ends of a symbolic continuum, but whole people, echoing and reflecting each other, containing monster and seraph and all that lies between. “This is the night you heard me screaming,” says Eileen in a moment suspended out of time and in shadow. She’s speaking to Sofi through the veils of memory and theater, which have converted a scream to its own calm description, rendering it all the more disquieting. Eileen goes on, unblinking:

I said terrible things …

I said none of you have ever been in this much pain …

I said it’s a conspiracy.

I said Ginnie you’re doing it wrong.

I said Sofi go away.

I said, You’re all useless to me.

I said …

A minute of this is an infinity.

It’s dicey, and usually inaccurate, to start throwing around words like Chekhovian, but there is a reason Annie Baker has been compared to the immortal Russian doctor, and it’s not the pauses. What she shares with him is an ability to place characters for whom she has both scientific fascination and infinite compassion in a mundane situation that both is and is not a metaphor, and then let them simply struggle to live. The clinic is real, and Infinite Life is a play about pain and illness — about the messed-up guilt and meaning we ascribe to these uncontrollable things, and the crises of identity and faith that they cause, and the way in which they so often go ignored, dismissed, under-researched, and preyed upon, especially in women.

And the clinic is only a container: a space in which to talk about and bear witness to suffering, physical or not, and to reckon with the excruciating human contradiction of our longing for meaning and our fear of it. “If pain doesn’t mean anything then it’s so fucking boring,” says Sofi, bent over and almost shaking, to Eileen. “But … I guess if it means anything at all, I don’t know if I can bear it.”

Whatever the relative wellness or illness of our bodies, Infinite Life gathers us all in its wide embrace, turning its curious, accepting gaze on our brokenness. “Pete,” pleads Sofi in the middle of the night, into the unlistening abyss of her husband’s phone, “who are the normal happy people? They’re out there …” Perhaps they are. Or perhaps — to paraphrase the title of another nimble, funny, and devastating story of sickness — people like Baker’s are the only people here.

Infinite Life is at the Atlantic Theater Company through October 14.

The Mortal Truths of Annie Baker’s Infinite Life