Sarantos Studios

A couple years ago I was conducting a seminar on a Sioux reservation in South Dakota. At one point we were discussing a short story by Chekhov, and a woman was proposing an interpretation of the story. She was articulate and made a sound argument. When she finished, the man who was leading the discussion–a bear of a man with two long pigtails–folded his arms and said, “So what?” It was neither a question nor a statement. It was more like a challenge, not only to the woman, but to all of us. None of us could respond, and after a pause the discussion moved on. Among the Sioux, it would seem, what has no meaning or use is easily tossed in the fire.

Lori O’Connell’s one-woman show, Tiny Tot Mystic, is also articulate and intelligent. Points are made, dilemmas resolved, and conclusions drawn. But so what? Perhaps the show is of some worth to O’Connell–the writing and performing of it a sort of therapy–but it forks over nothing but psychobabble to the audience.

The evening consists of three monologues, delivered by three unrelated characters. The first, “North Shore Girl Temporary Baffled,” features a woman who has lost her ability to smile. Joni smiled for 32 years and complimented people on this and that because it was the nice thing to do. Then a conjunction of influences–a philosophy class and the funeral of a friend’s mother–robs Joni of her smile. Soon, however, Joni discovers that her friends are trying not to smile so much either. They’re imitating her, or what they suppose to be her maturity, just the way her friends used to emulate her in high school. What a relief. The monologue concludes with Joni trying to shape her mouth into something, anything, saying, “Once more my popularity is reconfirmed. I’m so happy.”

In “South Shore Girl Baffles Various and Sundry,” O’Connell plays Lulu, a hyperactive college student. Lulu has lost not her smile but her spirit. That spirit first entered Lulu when she was four, until which time she neither spoke nor laughed. But then, imbued with her spirit, she began speaking in a southern accent, exhibiting a precocious intellect, and behaving in a generally zany manner. Her parents sent her to shrinks. It didn’t make a difference. Then they sent her to the University of Chicago, where, in her senior year, Lulu inexplicably lost her spirit. After much despair, Lulu encounters her spirit in a “dark night of the soul.” The spirit tells Lulu that she’s tired of being used to shield Lulu from sorrow and pain, and that she should wise up, since Lulu and her spirit are really the same person, and “quit using the second personal pronoun in addressing yourself.” This is Lulu’s epiphany. She rejoices in her discovery that she’s just Lulu, a human being, and she drops her southern accent.

A ten-minute intermission gave me time to ponder these two monologues. I noted that both Joni and Lulu had lost the one thing that helped them fend off the awkwardness and pain of life. I mulled over what they’d gained as they made the passage from loss-of-innocence to coming-of-age. I considered the disparity between the revelations that allowed Joni and Lulu to come to terms with their lives. Then I applied what I’d learned to my own life. And I still had nine minutes and 50 seconds on my hands.

In the third monologue, “Tiny Tot Mystic,” O’Connell plays Maureen, a 33-year-old social worker who (not surprisingly) loses her professional detachment and becomes depressed by the problems of her clients. “Weak ego boundaries” is the diagnosis of Maureen’s cousin Georgia: Maureen doesn’t know where she stops and others begin. Georgia’s prescription is a blind date with some guy named Tim and a little Percoset to calm the nerves. Well, to make an incredibly long story short, Maureen embarks on what is meant to be a comic odyssey, including a trip to the laundry, where she absentmindedly washes a gyro with her clothes, and a drug-induced reverie covering the emotional and spiritual turning points of her childhood. Eventually, finally, Maureen makes it to Tim’s, where she reiterates everything we’ve heard so far by way of explanation, concluding that she’s not God, she’s only human, and therefore need not shoulder God’s responsibilities. Tim turns out to be a sweet guy undismayed by philosophical rampages, and Maureen decides to stay for dinner. Happy ending.

So as you can see, Maureen gets the best of both worlds. Not only does she discover that it’s OK to be human (like Lulu), but she also receives the bonus of other people’s acceptance (like Joni). There are other recurrent motifs in O’Connell’s monologues. Both Lulu and Maureen are theologically obsessed as children. Joni and Lulu are both undone by philosophy class. And all three of the women dredge up their childhoods, lose perspective, become reclusive, encounter personal epiphanies, and jump back into the human race. I feel like I’ve sat through an evening of testimonials at Dianetics Anonymous.

On the surface, O’Connell’s three characterizations seem distinct. Joni is prim and restrained, remains seated the entire time, and keeps her hands clasped and her legs crossed and locked in the rungs of the stool. Lulu (by way of contrast more than anything else) is altogether spunky; she constantly fiddles with her clothes and acts half her age. Maureen bridges these two extremes, seeming more casual than restrained, and somewhat fidgety but not hyperactive. Not only that, Maureen lives in Old Town, which lands her smack between her North Shore and South Shore cohorts. They’re all sisters under the skin, and they all have the same story to tell. Which leads me to believe that O’Connell is engaging in little more than an exercise in self-actualization. OK, I’m glad she’s in touch with her humanity, but what’s that got to do with me? I didn’t know therapy was a spectator sport.

Ted Sarantos’s direction is all detail and no substance. He hustles the pace of these overwritten monologues instead of making cuts. He gives each character a different blocking pattern, costume, and hairdo, but never compels O’Connell to discover each character’s individuality. Sarantos keeps the show moving, but it doesn’t go anywhere.

I guess the same could be said about O’Connell, in that she’s all intellectually dressed up with nowhere to go. I mean, she’s bright, and not a bad narrative writer, whether she’s describing “the gentleness of dust” or the way Lulu’s parents “vacillate between solipsism and fascism.” But, if two hours of monologues covering everything from anomie to God’s silence proposes no solution more profound than feeling good about yourself, then we’re just pissing in the baby pool here. It’s time to fold our arms and ask, “So what?”