There’s a reason Sofi, the central figure in Annie Baker’s superb new play Infinite Life, is first discovered reading George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda. Like the 19th-century novelist, Baker is concerned with endurance and suffering; like Eliot, she seeks truths about the workings of society; like Eliot, she turns a level gaze on human frailties.
Where the pair differ, however, is that Baker is also laugh-out-loud funny. Infinite Life is that rarest of things – a comedy about death and pain, written with such precision it seems to expose the workings of the heart.
It couldn’t seem simpler. Five women lie on sunbeds in a “fasting clinic” in a converted motel facing a car park. Sofi (played with curled intensity by Christina Kirk) is the youngest, separated from her husband; Yvette (Mia Katigbak) is an over-sharer who knows every “-itis” and its pharmaceutical cure; Ginnie (Kristine Neilsen) is full of sympathy and gossip where Elaine (Brenda Pressley) has an obsession with the organic and the healthy that can turn to bullying. Then there’s frail Eileen (the wonderful Marylouise Burke) who the others hear screaming in the night.
They are joined – and their gleeful expressions as they watch his arrival are a joy – by the bare-chested, loose-limbed Nelson (Pete Simpson) who entrances Sofi with pictures of his colonoscopy.
And they talk, their conversation punctuated by long pauses, Isabella Byrd’s lighting marks the passing of day into night, sunshine into darkness, on a set by the design collective dots that accurately conjures the slightly tatty barrenness of the place, with its breeze block walls and concrete patterned screens. Sofi announces the changes in the time, speaking directly to the audience.
Books constantly play a part in their chat. Ginnie is reading the memoir of a Holocaust survivor who goes on to run a white-water rafting company; later she and Yvette battle with the ethical dilemmas of whether they would have behaved like a pirate who rapes a 14-year-old girl, if they had had the same background. Elaine fills in a colouring book.
James Macdonald’s direction is sensitively attuned to the way the play unfolds, at once naturalistic and theatrical. He seems to hold the depth and skill of the performances in gentle hands, letting them develop as the women describe how they feel while fasting or talking about their longings, their needs.
Baker doesn’t judge the efficacy of the cure they have all embarked on. She presents it as a fact. In the same way, she places the characters in front of us and lets their concerns arise from apparently unconnected thoughts and random ideas. Yet their stories have a strange ability to disconcert and unsettle, to build a picture of life that is both hopeful and unutterably sad.
The play was written in 2018, yet it now seems like a post-Covid meditation on the nature of illness and suffering. But it’s more complicated than that. Sofi’s sexual desires, the references to relationships and to children, make it a quiet study of what it is to be a woman. It’s like a loosely woven web, where meaning emerges through the holes of the language just as much as through what is said.
Most of all, though, it is about pain and its meaning. Religious references run quietly through the play. “If pain doesn’t mean anything then it’s so fucking boring,” says Sofi, reaching for understanding, before adding “I also really do feel like if I had a week in a hotel room with that man in the silk pants, we would cure each other.”
Sex and death, the two great eternals. Those are Baker’s themes just as they were Eliot’s. This is a terrific play, understated yet rich, utterly engrossing. What a season the National is having: three great ensemble shows about women – The Witches, The House of Bernarda Alba and this – in its three auditoria.