Culture clash

City Theatre’s Mother Teresa is Dead presents opposing world views of the East and West, of collectivism and individualism, and asks if it is possible to reconcile the two perspectives.

Written by British playwright Helen Edmundson, the play begins when Mark (Sam Redford) finds his wife Jane (Rebecca Harris) at the home of English expatriate Frances (Kristin Griffith) in India. Jane had disappeared from her home in England seven weeks earlier, leaving Mark to care for their 5-year-old son, Joe. Mark soon learns that Jane had been working in a children’s shelter in India with a man named Srinivas (Nehal Joshi) until one day she suddenly disappeared again. Frances later found Jane, crying on the street clutching a white plastic bag. No one knows what happened to Jane or what is inside the plastic bag she won’t part from.

The heart of the play lies in Jane’s crisis: Can she make the most meaningful difference by mothering one child at home, or by dedicating herself to the care and teaching of the many troubled children in the streets of India? As Srinivas and Mark work to pull Jane in opposite directions — staying in India or going back home to England — Jane struggles with questions of responsibility between the global and nuclear family.

Adding to this conflict of idealism and excess is the conflict of love and duty. Frances, a former beauty, now divorced, is insecure and maintains a harmful love affair with a man who sees sex as a form of connection with no ties or commitment. Srinivas views the world from a perspective of duty and cannot love; he sees sex as nothing more than a way to connect to someone’s karma. While Mark lives on the basis of a nuclear family, working to help get his son get ahead, Jane can’t cope with a life of consumption, where having a child feels like another form of adding to one’s possessions.

The stage, featuring items borrowed from the nearby Culture Shop, is divided into three areas: the garden, living room, and bedroom of Frances’s home. Each is well decorated, with an Indian aesthetic that clashes with the English accents and character drama.

Redford, playing Mark, is particularly powerful on stage. He makes Mark likeable despite his unlikeable role as the character who wants the English to stay in England and the Indians to stay in India. Redford softens his character’s anger, emphasizing the fact that he is confused and threatened in a foreign country. Even while angry at Jane, Redford maintains a sense of hurt and tenderness in his character. He portrays an almost childlike innocence in all of Mark’s emotions.

Griffith, playing Frances, fluently delivers English wit and observations and draws laughter from the audience. Portraying her character’s subtle emotions, Griffith affects nostalgic, jealous, sad, or angry tones from one line to the next. It is this quality of acting that brings her character’s drama to light.
Harris (Jane) uses body language to portray her character’s frightened emotions. Her character is in a confused state throughout the play, so her whole body is awkward — she can’t speak straight or stand straight — and Harris makes full use of her body to add to the tension on stage. For example, Jane is always barefoot, which Harris uses to her advantage, bending and scrunching her feet while speaking.

Joshi’s character, Srinivas, is believable throughout, despite fluctuating emotions and comical stage makeup. Joshi was a master of matching his features with his emotions, from idealism to steadfastness. He created a character that was brilliant and idealistic, though still childish.

Mother Teresa is Dead fits City Theatre’s repertoire of bold and contemporary plays. The theme of clashing civilizations is compelling, and particularly resonant in our global era.