What makes a play "great"? A few years ago I saw The Fever, by Wallace Shawn, about a wealthy woman who travels to a Third World country, has a nervous breakdown, and, in a long monologue, tells us she finally came to understand that the happiness of the Western world is explicitly tied to the misery in developing nations.
The Fever is really just a harangue in which Shawn obliterates the self-serving comfort provided by white liberal guilt. From a dramaturgical viewpoint, The Fever could hardly be called a good, let alone great, play. But in the two years since I've seen it, I probably haven't gone a week without thinking about it.
Helen Edmundson's Mother Teresa Is Dead, now at City Theatre, covers similar ground: A young woman leaves London to work with street kids in India. She has a breakdown, flees to the home of a British ex-pat -- and then her husband shows up, demanding answers.
Mother Teresa, then, is an actual play -- plot, character, structure, etc. -- everything The Fever lacks. Yet, oddly, Fever is the more successful evening.
The problem, I think, is that by adding elements to hook theater-goers (plot, character, etc.), Edmundson distances us from the message she wants to impart. Will Jane return with her husband, or stay with her Indian mentor, Srinivas? Will Frances, the ex-pat, align with her husband back in Blighty -- or remain enthralled with India and Srinivas? These problems are not only reduced to melodrama when foregrounded against global poverty and the exploitation of children. They trivialize those issues as well.
While Edmundson has a gorgeous way of summarizing global political realities, she gives the words to her most loathsome character. Her most interesting creation, the detached Frances, seems lifted from a Terrance Rattigan play, and the emotional climax is, um, "borrowed" from Suddenly Last Summer and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Most regrettably, the playwright concludes by offering a degree of comfort; it may be of a bittersweet kind, but it remains self-serving -- and the exact opposite of what makes The Fever so harrowing and unforgettable.
None of this negates the pleasures of the City Theatre production, and the fine work of director Tracey Brigden and her strong company of actors. It is a meditative production, suffused with sadness and a palpable sense of emotional need with a gorgeous set by Tony Ferrieri.
Mother Teresa Is Dead continues through Oct. 28. City Theatre, 13th & Bingham Streets, South Side. 412-431-CITY