February 8, 2001

Signs Of Life

Print More

The work of an artistic recluse is packing a Cornell building? No, Salinger isn’t teaching a frosh writing seminar. No, it’s not a symposium on Pynchon. It is, rather, Jane Martin’s 1990 play entitled Vital Signs, currently being performed at the Black Box Theatre. Martin, believed to be a pseudonym, has never appeared or written about herself or spoken of “her” works. Though “she” was one vote shy of a Pulitzer (in 1996), Martin is hardly a household name. Vital Signs, meanwhile, is enjoying a sellout run at this Cornell theatre.

The play, a grouping of mostly short monologues, coalesces under the themes of Americana and variations on the modern-day American experience. This leitmotif is explored from numerous angles: absurd revelations shed light upon cult involvement, a poor middle-American lotto winner worries how life will change for her and her unknowing husband, a discourse waxes metaphysical upon the architectural structuring of Arby’s, the ramblings of a Nintendo-playin’ badass gang girl run wild, unsettling gloom surrounds domestic struggle and tears at an abusive household. And this is just a small sampling of the first act.

These scenes are brought to life by the ensemble cast, rambling through darkness until captured under the jaundiced glow of spotlight, the previous scene frozen in time, the next, an uncertainty. When the moment begins, it is a moment free-standing, escaping amorphous transition and taking form right in the middle of things. A chair becomes a living room, a casting of lights a truckstop, the audience, guests at a party. Sometimes these transitions fall short, but far more often they succeed convincingly, bringing the audience into a fixed moment that is believable and lucid.

The middles–life is basically all middles. Oh, there are beginnings, but whatever their outcomes, their effects, the ebb and flow of openings and firsts, they always seem to flow quickly into middles. It’s in the middle of things that struggles occur, that the humorous bleakness of life unfurls, implodes, combusts. Such is the world created by Martin–full of troubled females, name brands, death, drugs, television society, bleak relationships, monetary adversities, love snafus, and sex problems.

Yes, the confines of this play are boundaries of struggle, but struggle with attitude, with character, with flavor, and in fleeting sections, with heart. Overall, it is a work that tugs upon the detritus of everyday life–the flotsam and jetsam of existence, the possibilities of possibilities and everything entailed by such choices.

Adapted by well-traveled theatre director Beth Milles ’88 (God Said Ha), the performance space is well utilized. The stage is sparse. From the beginning, music keeps the senses on edge, in fluid paring with transitional movement, sparking anticipation of the subsequent monologue. Though not an overtly ambitious staging, the minimalist direction complements the dialogue, and is understandable within the confines of this theatre. The largely female ensemble cast is effective; quite often, performances are poignant and charming, humorous and forceful at the necessary moments, bringing numerous scenes into memorable fruition.

Martins’ monologues are at times clich