THE THEATER is a logical place to explore liberal guilt. Throw colonialism into the mix, and you've got Helen Edmundson's great play Mother Teresa Is Dead, currently running in a thought-provoking and fiercely complex production at Portland Playhouse.
As the play opens, a painter named Frances (Gretchen Corbett) is welcoming a sweaty Brit into her South India home: Mark (Chris Harder) has come to find his wife, Jane (Nikki Weaver), who disappeared weeks before, leaving Mark to care for their young son.
Turns out Jane has been convalescing with Frances, after Frances found her weeping on the streets of Madras. Before that, Jane had been volunteering at a children's shelter run by the charismatic Srinivas (Luke Bartholomew)—stifled by a life of relative privilege that nonetheless left her miserable, she left her own child behind in London to care for other people's children in India.
But clueless Mark has no idea why Jane left home, and he's powerfully out of his element in India. His discomfort bubbles over into racist, nationalistic tirades, but his character development doesn't stop there—playwright Edmundson insists on the multidimensionality of her characters, and she builds an unexpected sympathy for Mark. Actor Chris Harder is great in the role—a complex character, intelligently rendered.
The performances are pretty good across the board, in fact, though it's Corbett who's got my Drammy vote—dignified, grounded, and thoughtful, she's stunningly good in an aging-artist role that could easily have been cartoonish or sad.
The only weak link in the cast is Nikki Weaver's one-note portrayal of Jane. The script tells us that Jane is a woman with an interesting mind, but Weaver never seems to locate her character's core—she's content to twitch and tremble as though these outward signs point the way to an inner life. Her wounded-animal affect makes for a showy, high-wire performance, to be sure—but it's wrong for the character, and wrong for a show that, under Isaac Lamb's direction, is otherwise intelligent and nuanced.
I'd see Mother Teresa again just to see Corbett's performance one more time, but that remarkable turn is just the centerpiece in a show that has plenty of other things going for it: Complex characters, sophisticated performances, and pressing moral questions about a Western standard of living that's built quite literally on the exploitation of lesser-developed countries.