A sentimental streak a mile wide, a modicum of religious faith and a disinclination to irony are as necessary as a ticket in order to wrap oneself around “Oscar and the Pink Lady,” Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt’s inspirational monodrama now in its U.S. premiere at the Old Globe. In a rare Southland visit, Rosemary Harris brings focus and commitment to a parable too much of which sounds as if culled from scented greeting cards. Actress always mesmerizes, though it’s not unlike hiring Pablo Casals to perform “Frere Jacques.”
Among the effects of a seven-year-old leukemia victim are 12 epistles to God, composed during his final days at the advice of his pink-smocked volunteer caregiver (and, unaccountably, one-time lady wrestler) nicknamed “Granny Pink” (Harris), who proceeds to assume the little boy’s persona and perform them for us. Originally a skeptic, Oscar develops faith quickly, seeing God as a pal with whom to share reports on hospital doings rather than as the cause of his ill health or a resource for the meaning of life.
Play’s content has charm as far as it goes. Aware of his borrowed time, Granny has suggested the boy think about aging 10 years each day, and though his insights seem way too precocious (first he’s 20 and “dating” another patient; next day he’s 30 and “married;” a day later he’s philandering due to his midlife crisis), the conceit offers structure and Ages of Man gravitas. Meanwhile, though Oscar’s discoveries smack of Ziggy (“There’s always a way”; “Look at the world every day as if for the first time”), anyone having suffered the awful loss of a child would likely find solace in this piece, and that’s not nothing.
Still, the lack of conflict between Oscar and Granny, or between either and God for that matter, becomes increasingly problematic and hard to credit. The volunteer responds to all eventualities with indefatigable sweetness, and Oscar is almost as sanguine (moments of pique toward parents get resolved neatly on Christmas Eve).
There’s no reason why either character must rage against the dying of the light, but simpering is hardly their only alternative. Helmer Frank Dunlop could have done more to combat a wearisome sameness that starts to verge on the treacly.
Otherwise, he has nicely shaped Harris’s command of pace and space (she uses every inch of, and object in, Michael Vaughn Sims’s detailed hospital ward-in-the-round), and her accomplishment is prodigious by any standard: It’s not every thesp who could carry a two-hour show without showing signs of strain, let alone a star just turned 80.
Actress’s approach offers an interesting contrast with another solo act in town. While Matt Sax employs voice, movement and costume adjustments to precisely differentiate each character in “Clay,” Harris is much less fastidious. She does two voices for dialogues — upper and lower register — but lets emotional context, rather than consistency, determine which character gets the higher pitch in any given scene. Also, she physically characterizes everyone in the same tippy-toe style, one befitting both puckish old lady and young scamp.
Perhaps the difference lies in the nature of the dramatic events themselves. Since young Sax and his protagonist Clifford are only starting out in life and career, their careful delineation reflects a need for everything to be just so. But Oscar and Granny, whose hourglasses are running out, have no interest in such niceties. For them, the expressing of heartfelt truth in whatever time remains, however fulsomely, is enough.