Infinite Life may be the perfect title for an Annie Baker play. Whether they’re as epic in length as John or The Flick (her Pulitzer Prize winner) or a compact one act like this they seem to have started long before you arrived and will continue on after the lights have gone down. She’s a master of liminal spaces like B&Bs or movie theaters or in this case spas, waystations that however long you’re there feel forever inhabitable. It’s the people, and the stories, that change.
Set in a pre-pandemic 2019 the show, a coproduction with London’s National Theatre now at the Atlantic Theater Company on this side of the pond, is about a pressing but unglamorous concern of modern life, pain relief. The characters have come to a spa in Northern California to allay what ails them, through a rigorous routine of fasting only broken up by occasional sips of water and juice. They move and speak deliberately, careful not to upset nervous systems that are already out of whack. There is, as to be expected, a lot of medical talk, about bile and bladders and cancers. (Medical staff are never seen.) The strict regimen is never questioned; something has to work to break the grip of chronic illness, and if return visits are necessary so be it. But, people being people, and not wanting to be defined by what limits them, the conversation shades into sex, and books, and philosophy. Sofi (Christina Kirk) is creeping her way through George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda but is sidetracked by fellow patients on the chaise lounges, elder women who when not dozing or trying to conserve energy open up about their lives, in artful dabs of characterization studded by carefully calibrated pauses.
Ginnie (Kristine Nielsen), a flight attendant who is trying to stay the course with her nettlesome vertigo, draws out Sofi about her troubled marriage, which we hear her side of in agonized phone calls. Yvette (Mia Katigbak) unloads about a lifetime of discomfort in a monologue that’s half-horrible and half-humorous. From behind the pages of her coloring book Elaine (Brenda Pressley), a Lyme disease sufferer, offers occasionally caustic commentary. The grande dame of the group, as it were, is Eileen (Marylouise Burke), a Christian Scientist who’s been in and out of the clinic and between long stretches of sleep seemingly keeps her wisdom in reserve, for when it might be needed. Once the laconic and handsome Nelson (Pete Simpson), a cancer patient, arrives it’s insinuated that some sort of recalibration will be required; he brings out something febrile in the ladies, particularly the needful Sofi (who initially thinks he’s a hallucination).
But don’t expect bombshells. Baker and director James Macdonald keep the piece quiet; it empathizes with the day-to-day agonies the characters are trying to keep in check or brush off. The outdoor set (designed by dots) is simple, the costumes (Asta Bennie Hostetter) off the rack, and the sound (Bray Poor) inobtrusive other than crickets. Kirk periodically calls out how much time has elapsed, and for much of the show Isabella Byrd keeps Infinite Life in semi-darkness. This is always a risky choice for audiences used to tumult but the spareness of Baker’s writing and the fullness of the performances command constant interest. Burke (the original, non-musical Kimberly Akimbo) and Nielsen are prone to mannerism when let loose on comedy but are beautifully restrained here, a restraint shared by the whole company. One by one they do let off steam, powerfully, and the show builds to a long and compelling conversation about communing with one another, ending with a lovely, physical gesture. It’s a finale you can savor and maybe take home with you, along with your newfound knowledge of sphincters, as Infinite Life, the burden of pain, and the possibility of transcendence go on.