Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, July 2009

“To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep;
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to, 'tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish'd.”

- William Shakespeare, Hamlet

“We’re here because we’re here because we’re here because we’re here...”

- Anonymous

That just about sums it up. If you sit down and start pondering why you exist, if there is any purpose to your life, it is pretty darned easy to figure out that you are a useless speck of flotsam in a large and random universe, which is very depressing and so most of us choose not to go there often. We can either choose to keep on keeping on until our time on this mortal coil is over, or end it all. “To be, or not to be, that is the question.”

In Underneath the Lintel, the discovery of a library book left in the over-night book drop 113 years after its due date sends a Dutch Librarian on a literal and spiritual odyssey. What begins as a search for the person who would dare keep a book checked out for more than a century becomes a quest to prove her own existence and its purpose.

Alas, not even carving “I WAS HERE” deeply into her desk after she has been fired from her job will ensure her immortality. Eventually no more Librarian, not more library, no more desk, no more planet earth. She is an unmarried, childless, post-menopausal woman, which increases her desperation to matter, but even those who have reproduced can do nothing to make a lasting impression, which makes “Underneath the Lintel” a very sad play indeed.

It is also a very funny and well-written one-person play, energetically directed by Andrew Volkoff and winningly performed by Glynis Bell at Barrington Stage, that unravels part of an intriguing mythical mystery in an engaging manner.

I was not familiar with the legend of The Wandering Jew (I really did think it was just a houseplant) so I will elaborate a little for those as ignorant as I. As Jesus carried his cross to Golgotha, he collapsed in front of the home and business of a Jewish cobbler. The cobbler was standing underneath the lintel in his doorway, watching the common sight of a procession of prisoners to sentenced execution by crucifixion. The Roman military shout to the cobbler not to help the prisoner, but to make him get up and walk on. The cobbler follows orders, and as Jesus rises to take up his cross once again, he says “I will go, but you will tarry til I come again.” A further stipulation is that he must remain anonymous, never revealing his fate or his identity to anyone.

So The Wandering Jew is granted something very close to immortality, but at the cost of his own identity. In Glen Berger’s play, the person who checked the Baedecker’s travel guide out of the Hoofddorp Library in 1873 signed with the single initial A. and gave his address as Post Office Box 121 in Dingtao, China. Other clues lead The Librarian to London England; Bonn, Germany; New York City; Brisbane, Australia; and on and on around the world – which is how she ultimately loses her job, and, like many of us, particularly those who have not married or reproduced, finds that her job provided her primary sense of identity. While neither Jewish nor anywhere near immortal, The Librarian slows loses all sense of self and becomes doomed to wander.

“Three simple Facts, three confirmed and undeniable Facts – the immensity of the universe, the incomprehensibly vast history of the Earth, and our inescapable mortality – loom over all of us like three paisley mastadons. When I shine these three Facts upon any moment in my life, suddenly nothing, absolutely nothing, isn’t strange, bewildering, and out of all whooping.”

– Glen Berger

Underneath the Lintel was originally presented in 2001 literally days after September 11th, so even though Berger had been struggling to find a way to write about those enormous more-than-mastadon-sized issues for years, his search was not prompted a monumental event like the 9/11 attacks. But the play’s opening so close to Ground Zero so very soon after them certainly ensured its ability to resonate with a New York audience. So while it was exactly the right play for that time and place, it is not a play born of them.

You will be interested to learn that the show opened with a male actor as The Librarian. The script Barrington Stage provided me with had hand-written across the title page “Female Version.” This is not the first time the show has been presented with female Librarian, but I am sure that the original or “Male Version” must be a very different play. We still view unmarried, childless, post-menopausal woman who live alone as sad and peculiar creatures who lead empty lives and teeter on the brink of madness brought on by an unnatural repression of sexual and reproductive needs. I refer you to the recent international hysteria surrounding the discovery that such a woman, namely Susan Boyle, could sing.

Men and women are equally mortal, but the descent from the entirely false security we surround ourselves with in order to function day-to-day life into the overwhelming insecurity of our reality, takes a different arc in each gender.

BSC’s Stage II space in the VFW Hall in Pittsfield is low-ceiled. Scenic designer Brian Prather has apparently opened the stage up completely, and lined the walls with bits of furniture, hand props, and old set pieces to simulate the cheap lecture hall the Librarian has rented for her "one-time-only lecture" with “An Impressive Presentation of Lovely Evidences.” I just love that phrase. And it is a very impressive presentation indeed. The inescapable agony of our pointlessness is heartbreaking, but following a good mystery is a good way to distract ourselves while we’re here!

With her entrance following immediately after BSC Artistic Director Julianne Boyd had left the stage after the curtain speech, I was struck with the physical resemblance between Bell and Boyd. And then, as the performance progressed, by the vocal resemblance between Bell’s Librarian and Katherine Helmond (best known as Jessica Tate on Soap and Judith Light’s character’s mother, Mona, on Who’s the Boss?) Who knew Katherine Helmond spoke with a Dutch accent?

But Bell is very good in this role, particularly as the Librarian’s cheerful veneer cracks. She presents as an intelligent, likable woman, who is no more insane than you or me. No more insane than you or I would be if we had to face the harsh reality of our uselessness every day, as the Librarian eventually does.

In a season where I have been complaining too often that playwrights don’t move their characters forward in any way in the course of their dramas, “Underneath The Lintel” is a refreshing change. The Librarian makes a tremendous journey physically and emotionally in the course of the play, and Berger makes it fun to watch as well – when it isn’t heartstoppingly terrifying. It is that all too true terror that causes me to warn you not to bring children under 14. The young need to get a head start on enjoying life before they face the fact that it is short, pointless, and often painful.

The Barrington Stage Company production of the Underneath The Lintel runs through July 26 at the Stage 2 space in the VFW Hall, 36 Linden Street in Pittsfield, MA. The show runs 90 minutes with no intermission and is suitable for ages 14 and up. Please call the box office at (413) 236-8888 or visit www.barringtonstageco.org to purchase tickets or for more information.

copyright Gail M. Burns, 2009

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