IN INFINITE LIFE, a new play by Annie Baker, five American women find themselves reclining next to each other on chaise lounges at a fasting clinic two hours north of San Francisco. What they have in common is pain.
But how do you describe pain? Patients will often try hard when a doctor asks them: “On a scale of one to 10, how much pain are you in?”
Infinite Life, a co-production between the Atlantic Theater Company in the US and the National, has transferred with its entire American cast from the Linda Gross theater in New York to the Dorfman Theatre in London.
The five women thrown together are Sofi (Christina Kirk), 47, who comes from Los Angeles; Eileen (Marylouise Burke), who is in her 70s and from Wichita, Kansas; Elaine (Brenda Pressley), in her 60s and lives in Dublin, New Hampshire; Ginnie (Kristine Nielsen), in her 60s from Rio Vista, California; and Yvette (Mia Katigbak), who is in her 60s or 70s from Midland, Michigan.
In the mix is thrown a man, Nelson, in his 40s, from San Francisco.
Sofi’s account of what she is going through is the most searing: “Whenever I pee it’s like I’m peeing razors. And my bladder is covered in these ulcers and there’s always blood in my urine.”
Sometimes there are long, painful pauses between snatches of conversation.
Ginnie is knowledgeable about sphincters: “There’s your anal sphincter, but there’s also your cardiac sphincter and your pyloric sphincter. That’s why carbonation makes you feel good. It activates your pyloric sphincter.”
She adds: “I have autoimmune thyroid stuff, but mostly I’m here for my vertigo.” I did wonder what the exchanges would be like if the American women had been replaced by five British Asian women. Perhaps the play could be transposed to Wembley.
Under the direction of James Macdonald, there is dark humour even in the discussion of pain.
When Sofi says, “There’s something wrong with my bladder,” it is the trigger for Yvette to launch a long monologue: “I had my bladder removed.”
She tells the story of her bladder: “…because I think when they did the C-section they nicked my bladder or something. Suddenly I’m peeing every 15, every 20 minutes. I remember trying to drive to the grocery store with my children strapped in the back seat – this is a 10-minute drive – and having to pull over by the side of the road and pee in the bushes.
“And then I wean my daughter and my hormones change again and all my lupus symptoms come back! So I have two little kids and joint pain and night sweats and a rash on my face the shape of a butterfly and a bladder the size of a pea and I’m starting to realize that my husband is useless to me.
“So they do this thing called – what was it called – did they do this to you? They fill your bladder up with lidocaine and they distend it …”
She continues the tale later: “OK. Long story short. Long story very short. They take my bladder out and I get a bodywide fungal infection from all the antibiotics I’ve been on and the fungus gets into my lungs and it’s resistant to all the normal antifungals, it’s resistant to clotrimazole and econazole and fluconazole and ketoconazole and itraconazole and voriconazole and they have to give me a life-threatening last resort antifungal that’s not a zole and I’m in the hospital hooked up to an IV drip for two weeks. And then things get better and I can finally go back to work, but then one day I’m sitting at my desk, I’m looking at the computer, and this grey shade goes down over my left eye. I mean I watch it go down. Like the end of a movie or something. And, what do you know, I’ve gone blind in my left eye. No explanation. And then at some point I realized my lunulae had disappeared. Do you know what those are?”
When Sofi shakes her head, Yvette explains: “The half moons at the bottom of your fingernails. My lunulae had disappeared. And then my arthritis came back. And the brain fog. And the difficulty swallowing. And the scleroderma. And the lichenplanus. And the spondylosis. And the labyrinthitis. And the polymyositis. And the pericarditis. Then I got an MRI when I turned 55 and I’ll never forget the doctor walking in and saying, ‘well, Yvette, it turns out in addition to all your other problems, you have three herniated discs, multiple spurs, and osteoporosis.’ So I had to accept it. I had to accept being in pain all the time. And then two years later I got diagnosed with breast cancer. And this is when the miracle happens. They want me to do chemo, but then I hear about this water-fasting clinic in California!”
Sofi is “head of the protein strategy team at a meal kit delivery service”, while Nelson is in “fintech”. She is turned on when she asks to see pictures of Nelson’s colon on his phone and he agrees: “It’s called primary signet-ring cell carcinoma with peritoneal dissemination. I’ve been clear for two years, but I just went in three weeks ago and it’s back. They want to do radiation again.”
Nelson, who has an open marriage, suggests he gives his wife a ring first – “yes that’s what we do” – before soliciting Sofi: “Why don’t I call my wife and give her a heads-up, then we can go to my room for a little while and see what happens.”
Sofi says she is sorely tempted, but has a flight to catch.
This sexually explicit play isn’t exactly Christmas fare with the children, but it has its moments.
Infinite Life is at the Dorfman Theatre at the National until January 13, 2024.