By Ron Fassler
Novenas for a Lost Hospital, currently at Off-Broadway’s Rattlestick Playwrights Theater on Waverly Place in Greenwich Village, beautifully plays itself out at three separate locations. In communal theatre fashion, an audience of sixty literally follows a 13-member cast to wherever they take them, beginning at an Episcopal church’s garden around the corner from the theatre and ending at the NYC AIDS Memorial Park a few blocks away. In between, the bulk of the evening happens in the Rattlestick’s home space, gutted to provide a wall-to-wall experience. And experience it you should.
According to the playwright’s program biography, “[Cusi Cram] lived on West 11th Street for over 25 years before eventually moving in 2018.” And why that is pertinent is because her play deals with the birth and death of St. Vincent’s Hospital, which until 2010, was a vital and important mainstay in the lives of the denizens of Greenwich Village, and in many cases, their deaths. The 161-year-old hospital was Ground Zero at the height of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s and its rich history is turned into drama, even leading to the building itself symbolically brought in on a gurney and expiring before our eyes. Founded in 1849 by four nuns from the Sisters of Charity, it was the first Catholic hospital in Manhattan. Beginning in a rented house on East 13th Street, it eventually moved in 1856 to the corner of Seventh Avenue and 11th Street, where it stood tall until it was demolished and turned into 200-unit condominium complex, which opened in 2015. It treated patients who survived the sinking of the Titanic, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire and victims of the September 11th terrorist attacks. And in a startling piece of symmetry, it was where many died from a cholera epidemic at its beginning and where so many died of AIDS as its community service neared its end.
Though sprawling, the piece retains its intimacy by virtue of the balanced restraint achieved in Rattlestick’s Artistic Director Daniella Topol’s well-directed production, which features a top-notch cast. Led by the always reliable Kathleen Chalfant, her consistent presence as Sister Elizabeth grounds the other actors around her, who take on a multitude of roles. I particularly enjoyed Kelly McAndrew, who shined as an acerbic hospital worker and a Greenwich Village matron who while getting her hair done, has a dialogue with her hairdresser (performed with perfect aplomb by Leland Fowler) that makes for an emotionally satisfying denouement in the play’s penultimate scene. It also uses song and dance to a pleasing effect, beginning in that church garden, where it is explained the ashes of many AIDS victims have been scattered over the years. It was also not lost on anyone, when it was pointed out that the apartment building that stands where the hospital once did, loomed large in the background hovering over us. That the night I attended was Friday the 13th under a full moon (no less), added to the fullness of the evening.
It should be noted that this all-inclusive experience even brings in visual aids, showcasing artwork from an organization (aptly and cleverly named) Visual Aids. Described on its website as “utilizing art to fight AIDS by provoking dialogue, supporting HIV+ artists and preserving a legacy, because AIDS is not over,” audiences are treated to some choice pieces chosen specifically for this Rattlestick production, that are hung throughout the theatre. Old-fashioned screens, once used in hospitals to separate beds were festooned with art as well as archival photographs, served up to enlighten theatregoers about St. Vincent’s history before the play begins in earnest.
What the Rattlestick and these artists have done is to bring a novena (nine to be exact) to the same vicinity where this great paean to not only an important structure that never should have been allowed to be torn down (and desecrated), but to all those who gave so much of their time, energy, sweat and tears to those less fortunate than themselves. There’s no better time than the present to head down to Greenwich Village and see Novenas for a Lost Hospital through its strictly limited engagement ending October 13th.
Photo: Julieta Cervantes