Out of the dross that is soap opera, Noah Haidle has spun comic gold. What Is The Cause Of Thunder? (inspired by a line from King Lear) is the title of his latest play, currently premiering at the Williamstown Theater Festival; it is also that of the television show in which the actress Ada (exquisitely tart Wendie Malick) has starred for 27 years, improbably surviving a series of spectacular deaths.
So steeped is Ada in her role as the ever-resilient Emily Posten, she prefers it to boring, mundane reality. For example, as her ultra-pregnant real-life daughter, Ophelia (the phenomenal Betty Gilpin) dutifully helps Ada go over the next episode’s sides, the younger woman must constantly reprimand her mother for addressing her as the actress’ TV daughter, Harper, who has been providentially slipping in and out of a coma for six years.
As it turns out, Gilpin also plays Harper, with an idiot’s blissed-out grin and a soapish bromide ever at the ready. Her other roles include a dulcet-toned nun in the hilariously parodic opening scene, as well as Harper’s evil twin, Bathsheba (fresh out of prison for having impersonated an oral surgeon), and — not to spoil any surprises — another streetwise semi-sibling, seemingly risen from the dead.
Like all the best takeoffs, Thunder is the work of a true aficionado: Haidle admits to having been a long-time fan of Days of Our Lives. And it’s precisely his agility in leaping between the exalted and the everyday that generates much of the humor. “I will bury you myself, in this unforgiving earth!” Ada grandiosely threatens Bathsheba. She pauses: “I don’t have a shovel.”
The lonely, overlooked Ophelia is on hand to lend contrapuntal pathos, as she converses fancifully with her “as-yet-unnamed fetus” and offers it down-to-earth counsel such as “Never go to Detroit.” She’s one of those youngsters forced, by a parent’s galloping egotism, into the caretaker’s role.
Ada hits a crisis point when her producers decide it’s time for her to die definitively. (“We want new voices, fresh blood,” reads their formal letter of dismissal. “You got old.”) Is there life after the heady vicissitudes of soap? Ada does her best to adjust, cozying up with chips, beer, ice cream, and TV, only to question: “Is this what people do with their lives?” Soon enough, she’s sucked back into her “own” story.
Everything about this production is a class act, from Fitz Patton’s buoyant Afro/Asian incidental music to Alexander Dodge’s malleable, mobile sets and Nicole V. Moody’s sophisticated costume designs, which make the most of Malick’s edgy elegance and Gilpin’s quick-change artistry. Both actors are so superb, it’s impossible to imagine anyone else in their roles — though many other interpreters and companies are going to want to get their hands on this hot property.