Fintan O' Toole, Irish Times, Monday, July 22, 2002
What if the Great American novel turns out to be a piece of theatre? Heather Woodbury's astonishing What Ever may be the nearest thing to an American Ulysses. In scale and ambition , her.epic perhaps exceeds even Joyce.. for the show is an odyssey not for a city but for a sub-continent." A one-woman Cecil B. de Mille, Woodbury populates the stage with a host that represents in terms of age, ethnicity, social class and geography, the U.S. itself.
If the comparison with Joyce is excessive, it is not entirely misplaced. While no one would claim for Woodbury the Dubliner's literary genius, her script bubbles with the energy of real life. Her ear is superbly tuned to the diverse tones of American demotic speech. She has the ability to see the comedy in human peculiarities. And she connects with the Homeric origins of the story in a way that Joyce could not.
The great frustration for a critic covering the Galway Arts Festival is that the need to see other things makes it impossible to stick with Woodbury's epic. It unfolds in eight episodes over four nights. I saw Episode 3, Seeing Things and Episode 4, Quakes, and for all its complexity, What Ever is like a great soap opera. You want to know what happens next.
The story unfolds over nine months in 1994 and 1995. Woodbury's Odysseus is Skeeter, a sixteen year old boy who hitch-hikes across the U.S from his home in Portland, Oregon, first to visit his father in federal prison, then to land on his Aunt Jeanette in New York.
The core cast of characters clusters around two groups. There are Skeeter's family and friends: among them the California"rave babes" Clove and Sable, to whom he has jointly pledged his everlasting love.His aunt Jeanette, call-girl turned crystal healer is the hinge that links this group into the second cluster, her lover Paul, a 68-year old corporate high-flyer and his Virginia family:His Southern Belle wife, Polly, who has embarked on a passionate affair with a black man, and their tree-hugging daughter Sheila.
Touching on these two groups is the vivid prescence of jazz-age doyenne Violet, a salty patrician New Yorker, with an endless fund of stories about her numerous marriages and divorces and the wisdom that comes from having seen it all.
At every point around these characters Woodbury establishes the human landscape with fleeting but unforgettable encapsulations of human diversity: the bizarre man who gives Skeeter his last lift into New York; the Puerto Rican girl who tries to pick him up in New York; Violet's quietly skeptical cleaning lady and the Greek owners of the ratty diner she haunts;Paul's bumptious successor as head of the corporation, and many more. Each, from the homeless paranoiac to the fashion salesman is wildly funny and infinitely sad.
Woodbury's command as a performer is such that she kicks away the crutches that any mere mortal might use to support this sweeping story. There is no narrative voice, no one to link the scenes with helpful exposition. Neither are there props nor scenery beyond a few well-placed chairs.
And there doesn't have to be. She achieves the economy of effect that is the mark of artistic mastery. A pose, a wave of the hand, a puckering of the lips, a change of vocal gears, is all she requires. Like an exorcist in reverse, she seems able to be possessed at will.
Even more impressively, while she is conjuring up all of this vivid humanity, Woodbury is also constructing a larger political and social architecture, and undermining the official blandness of the self-image that the American media project to the rest of the world.
Woodbury's America is a haunted place, all desire and no memory, searching for redemption in the richness of human experience. In this new, even more American century, it is as urgently relevant as it is deliriouisly enjoyable.
For more of Fintan on Heather: "What Ever Liberty Hall, Dublin" The Irish Times, October 16th, 2002