Playwright Annie Baker offers a theology of pain in her new play ‘Infinite Life’
The playwright Annie Baker is hardly a household name, though she won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for “The Flick,” a beautifully crafted observational drama about three low-wage workers at a small art-house cinema in central Massachusetts. She has never had a play on Broadway, and she never makes annual lists of most-produced plays in the United States. A film she wrote and directed, “Janet Planet,” may make her slightly better known when it comes out later this year.
But for theater fans, the arrival of a new Annie Baker play is cause for celebration—as well as cause for reflection, given her plays’ often challenging forms and subject matter. “Infinite Life,” now at Off-Broadway’s Atlantic Theater (in a co-production with London’s National Theatre), is her first new work since 2017’s “The Antipodes,” and it is both congruent with her brand of quietly attentive hyper-realism and something of a dramatic breakthrough.
For theater fans, the arrival of a new Annie Baker play is cause for celebration.
Set over a week on the back patio of a California fasting retreat, the play follows five women, most of them over the age of 60, as they recline on chaise longues and talk about the health conditions and the varied life experiences that brought them to this alternative clinic, where some subsist solely on water, others on juice. The youngest of the group, Sofi (Christina Kirk), who also functions as the piece’s quasi-narrator and main character, has an agonizingly intimate form of chronic pain. But, as she learns in conversation with the other women as well as one man closer to her age, Nelson (Pete Simpson), she is hardly alone in her trials. All the play’s characters face the grinding conundrum of living in bodies at war with themselves. They find small comforts in shreds of arguable wisdom they have picked up along the way, as well as in each other’s company—a blessed exception to an outside world that mostly can’t understand, and even actively discounts, their suffering.
If I have made “Infinite Life” sound like thin gruel, or like the self-righteous dramatic equivalent of a hairshirt, I am doing it wrong. As in all of Baker’s work, the seemingly stark simplicity of her staging concept functions like a string pulled taut, upon which the slightest ripple reverberates thunderously. Long stretches of “The Flick,” for instance, featured the workers sweeping the cinema floor and cleaning the seats, and one crucial scene took place nearly offstage, in a soundless projection booth. But the effect was to train our attention on subtle variations of behavior, to register the smallest detail, to hear the silences as loudly as the spoken lines and even to peer—carefully and uncertainly—into the unknown.
All the play’s characters face the grinding conundrum of living in bodies at war with themselves.
So it is that, though there are only a few proper jokes in “Infinite Life,” the night I saw the play, the audience was ready and willing to laugh at the slightest raised eyebrow. Indeed, a few lively all-cast scenes demonstrate that Baker could, if she wanted, wring a full-on comedy out of this dark material. But she also wants to simply go dark—often literally, as many scenes unfold in dusk or at nighttime. And her fine-tuned craft means that, under James Macdonald’s unflappable direction, Baker is able to lead us into the play’s deeper reaches, where Sofi’s complicated mix of shame and incomprehension emerges and she struggles with the seeming impossibility of hope.
One early monologue, by Yvette (Mia Katigbak), marks a turning point, as a litany of harrowing medical diagnoses and failed treatments morphs into a steely, unsentimental meditation on persistence. It is as if a perpetual onslaught of bodily indignity has become almost a reassuring throughline for Yvette; as long as she is not numb to the pains she faces, she is alive.
“Infinite Life” bears vivid and unsettling witness to the mortal coil we share.
A key later scene unfolds late at night, in near darkness, as Sofi and Nelson compare notes on their bodies’ often shocking dysfunctions, and she comes up with a formulation that could serve both as a prescription and a description of the special alchemy of “Infinite Life,” even of the value of theater in general. “I think what I needed was a conversation like this,” she tells him.
An exchange between Sofi and Eileen (Marylouise Burke), a frail pixie who has grown philosophical about her lifetime of pain, also gestures to the restorative power of simply speaking and imagining better outcomes. A semi-lapsed Christian Scientist, Eileen gingerly wonders aloud to what extent we can will ourselves out of our troubles, concluding, “I’m not saying I entirely believe that anymore. I’m also not saying I don’t believe that.”
But it is Sofi who voices the play’s most sobering insight, and the crux of what might be called its theology of pain: While it would be terrible to think that her suffering is entirely meaningless, what would it mean for it to have a purpose? That she is somehow to blame for it? The question sits there uncomfortably.
The Christian answer is that, no, our individual guilt is not in fact the source of our pain or the world’s evils, though we do inevitably partake of them; with grace we can orient ourselves to the fundamental goodness of creation and seek reconciliation and repair, if not an end to earthly suffering. But theodicy can be cold comfort to souls in torment, and among its many virtues, “Infinite Life” bears vivid and unsettling witness to the mortal coil we share.