Spontaneous human combustion

Effie's Burning

By Valerie Windsor
Directed by Katherine Hewett
Spotlight On Winter Theatre Festival 2002
Raw Space Theatre A
Equity showcase (closed)
Review by John Chatterton

Effie's Burning is about Dr. Ruth Kovacs, who is caring for a retarded, 64-year-old burn patient, Effie Palmer (Susan Scudder). Kovacs (Fiona Jones), a medical resident in a burns hospital, gets interested in Effie, who is reticent about how she got burned (she set fire to the home she was living in) or even how she became institutionalized in the first place, as a young girl. As Kovacs zeroes in on Effie's past, Effie starts to reveal the secrets kept from her by her own mind but released during nightmares: how she lived in a farmhouse with her parents (her name was Gloria; her father called her Effie, short for "effin' brat"); how a man found her in the hedges while she was looking for eggs and raped her; how the rapist repeated his act, bringing in a buddy to share the thrills; how she got pregnant and her parents had her committed as a moral degenerate; how she was dragged from home and taken away in a van.

Kovacs also starts zooming in on her own life, in particular her relationship with her boss, Dr. Jessup-Brown, a tyrant who doesn't see Kovacs's potential and thinks she should go into general practice, and to whom Kovacs finds it hard to talk back. All the action takes place in Effie's room, as the script moves effortlessly between Kovacs's narration of her troubles and her scenes with Effie. It develops that Effie set the fire because the authorities wouldn't let her share a room with her long-time pal, Alice, another retarded "moral degenerate" who eventually dies of a stroke. In a final, dramatic flourish, Effie reveals she did it without the aid of matches, by willpower alone.

If the death of Alice came as no surprise, the ending sure did, and gives credit to the masterful legerdemain of playwright, performers, and director. Jones managed with ease the constant transitions from narration to interaction and back and made real the growth from intimidated junior to nascent surgeon. Scudder offered an Effie by turns coy, confused, and defiant. Both drilled into the play and found the unapologetic love at its core.

(The bare-bones set was adequate to the needs of the piece; the only technical element that jarred was the lighting, an uneven rep. plot imposed by the limitations of the venue. Yet another Off-Off-Broadway landlord horror story!)

Box Score:

Writing: 2
Directing: 2
Acting: 2
Set: 1
Costumes: 1
Lighting/Sound: 0

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Copyright 2002 John Chatterton