How do people care for one another in dangerous times? That’s the still-relevant question underlying this beautiful, sad, enraging, uplifting, and awesomely staged theater piece that sweeps through the 161-year history of St. Vincent’s Hospital in Greenwich Village, dwelling on two traumatic periods – the cholera epidemic, during which four nuns from the Sisters of Charity founded the hospital in 1849, and the AIDS epidemic that surrounded it in the 1980s and 90s.
St. Vincent’s was shut down in 2010, and “Novenas for a Lost Hospital” begins with a literal view of that end. An engaging “prologue” takes place in the courtyard of St. John’s in the Village, the church next door to Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, little more than a block away from the condominiums that replaced the razed hospital.
Those dark new condos serve as a kind of backdrop for the audience during the pre-show in the courtyard, where a Village resident named Goussy Célestin welcomes us, leading an ensemble dressed variously in festive garb, in doctors’ scrubs or in patient garbs. They sing and dance and play musical instruments. One of them, Rafael Sánchez, performs a bathing ritual. (Sánchez was a patient at St. Vincent’s HIV until it closed.) Célestin also points to what was until recently the Open Door, a safe haven for 20 years for people with HIV/AIDS. She tells us that the ashes of people who died of AIDS are buried in urns in the courtyard.
After the pre-show, we are led out of the courtyard, down the block and up the theater’s steep, narrow staircase, the walls of which are graced with an exhibition curated by Visual AIDS. We enter a theater crowded with hospital partitions, those white screens that encircle a hospital bed to allow patients some privacy. These partitions display photographs, newspaper clips and other items in an exhibition of St Vincent’s history, each partition presenting a different era.
After we’ve had a chance to look over the exhibition, the partitions are soon cleared away, the characters make sure all of us in the audience have an electric candle to light and Cusi Cram’s play begins proper – well acted, and wonderfully directed by Rattlestick’s new artistic director Daniella Topol.
The script is divided into nine scenes, a number that reflects the title of the play: As the characters explain, a novenas is a prayer you say over nine days. “Novenas” takes the form, and sometimes the feel, of religious ritual.
The scenes, which travel back and forth in time, focus on the nurses, and on their interactions with their patients, and with the doctors. Often, these amount to various types of negotiations, compromises.
A nurse (Kelly McAndrew) agrees to hold hands and jump up and down with her AIDS patient JB (Justin Genna), a once glorious dancer who has plans to perform in Paris – which seems delusional, although the nurse gives no indication she thinks so.
“You’re not usually this accommodating. It’s a little terrifying,” JB tells her.
“Makes me think everyone but me will be resurrected. “
In a scene from the 19thcentury, the nurse Sister Ulrica (Natalie Woolams-Torres) indignantly stops a young Dr. Potter (Leland Fowler) from cutting into the body of a cholera victim, a Patrick McShane (portrayed by one of the other actors under a sheet), seeing the mutilation of a corpse as a desecration against God. But she comes to understand that the inexperienced Dr. Potter is nervous about conducting his first operation the next day – “I hold someone’s fate in my fingertips” – and he feels he needs the practice.
Her understanding comes at the prompting of Elizabeth Seton (Kathleen Chalfant), the first America Saint –or, more precisely, at the prodding of her ghostly presence, since Seton died in 1821, 28 years before St. Vincent’s began. The existence of Seton is, I suppose, easily defended – she established the Sisters of Charity in Maryland, some of whose members in New York went on to found St. Vincent’s. That’s certainly more of a connection to the story than the other early 19thcentury New Yorker who looms over the piece, Pierre Toussaint (Alvin Keith.) Toussaint, born a slave in what is now Haiti, became a popular hairdresser to New York high society, gaining wealth himself and turning into a philanthropist. They are both undeniably fascinating historical figures; both are also Catholic (Toussaint is buried underneath St. Patrick’s Cathedral.) But their presence can be read as a signal. “Novenas” is full of fascinating historical facts that the characters largely tell (not show) whenever they can. But if the trip “Novenas” takes us on is fueled by history, it takes flight into symbolism, impressions, observations, commentary, analysis, ironies, outrages.
Although a saint is a main character in the play, “Novenas” is no hagiography. Characters are blunt in criticizing the hospital’s mismanagement. (“Didn’t they kill the guy who wrote ‘Rent’?” one recalls.) Several scenes pit Catholic theology against good medical practice. Dr. T (Alvin Keither again) and Sister Angela (Kelly McAndrew again) argue over whether he can use the word “prophylactic” in a grant proposal.
There are many personal reasons why I considered “Novenas for a Lost Hospital” a must-see. I grew up in the Village, and live there still. This was my neighborhood hospital; it was the place where I was sent from P.S. 41 down the block when in fourth grade Jamie Lewis shoved my head into the playground wall. It was the place where my father died.
But the truth is St. Vincent’s Hospital was personal for so many New Yorkers. It was at the epicenter of AIDS. It was also one of the closest hospitals to the World Trade Center site, which is why on 9/11 its walls were plastered with paper notices of missing persons, which turned into posters, which turned into a wall full of memorials. At the end of “Novenas for a Lost Hospital,” Kathleen Chalfant as Mother Seton leads the audience down the narrow staircase to the street, and then the block and a half over to the so-called St. Vincent’s Triangle, a new park across the street from where the hospital stood. It’s the site of the New York City AIDS Memorial. We stood in a circle for the epilogue, beneath the white steel triangle canopy of the memorial. The hospital isn’t here anymore, but we remember.
Novenas for a Lost Hospital
At Rattlesnake Playwrights Theater
Written by Cusi Cram
With Dramaturgy by Guy Lancaster
Directed by Daniella Topol
Choreography by Edisa Weeks, set design by Carolyn Mraz, costume design by Ari Fulton, lighting design by Stacey Derosier, sound design by Brian Hickey & Sinan Zafar, composed by Serge Ossorguine, prop design by Rhys Alexander
Cast: Kathleen Chalfant, Ken Barnett, Goussy Celestin, Justin Genna, Steven Jeltsch, Alvin Keith, Shayne Lebron-Acevedo, Kelly McAndrew, Noriko Omichi, Rafael Sánchez, Laura Vogels, and Natalie Woolams-Torres
Presented in partnership with Village Preservation, The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, & Transgender Community Center, NYC AIDS Memorial Board, NYU Rory Meyers College of Nursing, St. John’s in the Village, and Visual AIDS.
Running time: 2 hours and 30 minutes with no intermission
Tickets: $45-60. Students 20
“Novenas for a Lost Hospital” runs through October 13, 2019