In the world premiere of Infinite Life – a co-production of Atlantic Theater Company and National Theatre, now playing a limited engagement at Off-Broadway’s Linda Gross Theater – Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Annie Baker (The Flick) considers the weighty issues of physical and emotional pain, the unremitting passage of time, and the universal need for human connection to help ameliorate the suffering. Employing her signature style of pregnant pauses amidst the mundane conversations and actions of everyday people, the compassionate Baker unfailingly succeeds in bringing humor, poignancy, slow reveals, and philosophical profundity to her work, as does Obie Award-winning director James Macdonald and a thoroughly empathetic cast of six.
The piece is set on the enclosed outdoor patio of a fasting retreat in Northern California, with seven chaise lounges and side tables surrounded by a wall of openwork breeze blocks and the vast sky above (set by dots, enhanced by Bray Poor’s sound design). One by one, we meet five ailing women (four older, one in her late forties) and one middle-aged man, all dressed casually and comfortably (costumes by Ásta Bennie Hostetter; hair and make-up by Alfreda “Fre” Howard), who have come for varying lengths of time to try to cleanse the toxins from their systems through alternative medicine, in the hopes of healing their different afflictions and lessening the pain.
What begins as silly, ice-breaking, amiable chit-chat between the politely responsive 47-year-old Sofi, portrayed with believable depth and complexity by Christina Kirk, and the sweet, soft-spoken, elderly Eileen, embodied by the irresistible Marylouise Burke, initially has us laughing. With the entry of the others, it soon evolves into a growing awareness – on the part of both the characters and the audience – of the relentless advance of time (the program specifically states that the retreat is located two hours, rather than a certain number of miles, north of San Francisco; Sofi repeatedly tells us how many minutes, hours, or days have passed between scenes, as indicated by the shifts in Isabella Byrd’s lighting), disclosures of their backstories, and the commonality of navigating through failing bodies and personal relationships (as we all eventually do), in graphic discussions of their illnesses, anatomy, and sexual desires (Sofi spends a lot of time in one-sided calls on her cell phone, with the intent of restoring her broken marriage and releasing the tension of her unsatisfied carnal desires).
Rounding out the compelling cast are Brenda Pressley as Elaine, Kristine Nielsen as Ginnie, Mia Katigbak as Yvette, and Pete Simpson as Nelson, all bringing their characters to life with distinctive demeanors, telling comments, and natural responses to the health crises in which they find themselves, with a combination of humor and heart, individuality and camaraderie, and spot-on timing, under Macdonald’s masterful direction and simpatico command of Baker’s tempered pacing and affecting humanity.
It’s also worth noting the presence of books (props by Noah Mease) and literary references throughout the show, suggesting the importance of writings (like the play itself) in inspiring considered thoughts and beliefs about the meaning of life and time, and that the final contrasting interactions between Sofi and Nelson, and Sofi and Eileen, offer subtle observations on a male’s, versus a female’s, response to providing support, comfort, intimacy, and bonding.
As with all of Annie Baker’s beautiful, sensitive, deliberately crafted plays, Infinite Life is filled with insights and discoveries about the human condition that take time to manifest, but will leave you thinking, and feeling, long after you’ve left the theater.
Running Time: Approximately one hour and 50 minutes, without intermission.
Infinite Life plays through Saturday, October 14, 2023, at Atlantic Theater Company, performing at the Linda Gross Theater, 336 W. 20th Street, NYC. For tickets (priced at $50-117, including fees), call (646) 452-2220, or go online. Masks are not required.