Body checks: Lauren English (left) is Lili and Rebecca Dines is Renee in the Magic Theatre’s revival of its 1993 hit Why We Have a Body by Claire Chafee. Below: English’s Lili converses with Maggie Mason’s Mary. Photos by Jennifer Rei
“Once you start to ask,” Eleanor says, “there are more questions than answers.” Not a surprising statement in a play whose title, Why We Have a Body promises an answer to an implied question. And as Eleanor warns us, once those questions start forming, the answers, they keep multiplying.
Claire Chafee’s wonderfully enigmatic play is back at the Magic Theatre to open its 45th anniversary season with a look backward before heading into a season of newer plays. Body is being called a “legacy revival” because it was a huge hit for the Magic in 1993, running for six months and winning a passel of awards. What a welcome return it is.
In the nearly two decades since the play’s premiere, it has lost nothing in its sense of humor, sense of mystery and sense of, well, sensuality.
Chafee’s is an intellectual world – people living in their heads, in their pasts (the phrase “when I was a child” crops up a lot), in a perpetual state of perplexity – but that world is sliced through by a sharp comedy derived from family fractures and psychological scars. One of Chafee’s best lines comes when sisters Lili (Lauren English) and Mary (Maggie Mason) are on the phone talking about dreams. Mary has had another one of her feminist nightmares. “Like the once where you’re in a big circle and you have to come to a unanimous decision?” Lili queries.
Though the play moves mostly in one direction, there’s a fragmented sense to this story of a mother (Lorri Holt) driven to remote stretches of the planet, while her daughters are left to try and figure out there thorny adulthoods for themselves. Lili is a private detective who helps women whose husbands are cheating on them. Mary is a criminal. She holds up 7-11s, obsesses about Joan of Arc and has the power to send faxes telepathically.
Mary is a singular person in every sense. She’s on her own in the world, perhaps mentally ill but very self-sufficient. Lili, though independent, buckles under the pressure of wanting and needing someone to love. The women she has loved have, as her sister, points out, are “busy not noticing her.” But she has recently met a rather extraordinary paleontologist on a plane. Renee (Rebecca Dines) is married but separated from her husband.
The scene on the airplane between Lili and Renee – so perfectly performed by English and Dines – is incredibly sexy, as is the following scene when a nervous Renee comes to Lili’s home and ends up presenting a paleontological slide show of her childhood.
Director Katie Pearl’s 90-minute production flows beautifully with the help of Marsha Ginsberg’s gorgeous white set, which represents airplanes, wild rivers in South America, the open desert (a pile of dirt is brought in to help manage that one), a Mexican beach and an airport bar among other locations.
I found myself longing for the character of Eleanor to be more involved in the play. She seems to be a short story circling a novel, an influence on everyone involved but not really present. Sharply etched by Holt, Eleanor is reacting to the limitations of her own upbringing. She’s out in the world with no plans to return home. “I was never told that you have to look for your life,” she says. “That some of aren’t born into our lives, we have to go and look for them. As if they’re taking place without us.”
The fine quartet of actors skillfully mine the humor and the darker, dramatic places to create characters that you care about – enough anyway to feel pangs when they do, which is fairly frequently.
It all seems to boil down to something Mary says to her older sister, who is not having enough fun. “You gotta just enjoy the human dilemma, Lili. That’s why it’s here.” That could be an answer to why we have a body. It could just as easily tell us why we go to the theater, but for some of us, they’re one and the same thing.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Claire Chafee’s Why We Have a Body continues through Oct. 2 at the Magic Theatre, Building D, Fort Mason Center, Marina Boulevard at Buchanan Street, San Francisco. Tickets are $30-$75. Call 415-441-8822 or visit www.magictheatre.org.