Novenas for a Lost Hospital is a memory play told through several narrators that celebrates St. Vincent’s Hospital, a Catholic charitable hospital in the West Village that was founded in 1849 and closed in 2010. The novenas (devotional prayers in Catholicism), of which there are nine, give structure to the elegant sections that move back and forth in time from the founding to the closing. The effect is part drama, part history lesson, and part activism/immersive theater.
Written by Cusi Cram, the show begins in the courtyard of St. John’s in the Village church (an Episcopal church), where audience members are met by musicians and a singer (Goussy Célestin). Two men bring around a pitcher and a basin, inviting us to wash our hands, while a man sits in a hospital gown in a free-standing frame with gauzy curtains to resemble a hospital room (Carolyn Mraz designed the minimal yet effective sets). He bathes his feet while the symptoms of AIDS are narrated over a loudspeaker. The feeling is baptismal but also clinical, like a doctor who washes his hands after surgery. Or death. Daniella Topol’s direction organizes the observers, as well as the actors, through the journey of this play.
Next, the audience is led around the corner and upstairs to the Rattlestick Theater. Along the walls of the stairway is artwork by artists of Visual AIDS, an organization that utilizes art to fight AIDS. Viewers arrive in a room and are given small electric candles. Posters attached to old-fashioned rolling dividers, often used in hospital rooms, chronicle the history of St. Vincent’s Hospital. The show begins when these are wheeled away, and we take our seats on pews. There’s no altar, but the consideration of our own mortality that health crises and holy places can foster are not far away.
Central to the story are Pierre Toussaint (the majestic Alvin Keith) who has a jocular relationship with an unlikely playmate, Elizabeth Ann Seton (the graceful Kathleen Chalfant), who helped found several Catholic charitable organizations and was the first person born in the U.S. to be canonized. The two appear as the hallucination of an AIDS patient and banter throughout the centuries as people die and health care issues arise.
One story, set during the AIDS crisis, focuses on a patient named Lazarus (Ken Barnett) who is lying sick in Spellman 7, aka “Spellman 7, gateway to heaven.” JB, a beautiful dancer, (played by Justin Jenna, a professionally trained dancer) recounts one of his visits to the ward when he was zipping through the halls on roller skates to visit patients in an effort to cheer them up. On that visit he met Lazarus and they fell in love. Fun choreography by Edisa Weeks has JB leaping over a gurney and performing an expressive dance. The faux-African-patterned baggy pants and an electric-blue mesh tank top (costumes by Ari Fulton) that JB wears, along with JB’s lush dark mustache, harks back to the 1980s.
In the end, Lazarus, named because he escapes death three times, outlives JB, who succumbs to the illness. Another heartbreaking moment comes when Lazarus, standing above his “body” (Leland Fowler), narrates the tail of one of his near death experiences. Nurse No. 1 (Kelly McAndrew) takes off her gloves— they have strict orders to keep them on—and strokes his collarbone. Lazarus tells us its this little touch that kept him going.
Special tribute is paid to the tirelessly hardworking and kind nurses (played by McAndrew and Natalie Woolams-Torres with great tenderness) who treated those who came through St. Vincent’s doors during a cholera epidemic (1849), a typhoid epidemic (1852), and the AIDS crisis (1980s–90s), and all the neighborhood folk in between—including the survivors of the Titanic (1912). The nurses are no-nonsense caretakers with hearts of gold, and the actors effortlessly move back and forth between Irish accents and New York accents, depending on the time period.
In closing—the ninth novena: a prayer for us—moves the audience nearby to the AIDS memorial at St. Vincent’s triangle, while actors and musicians repeat a pleasant, rhythmic chant accompanied by egg shakers and instrumental music. Gathering around the memorial, we are asked to place our candles down and think of someone in sickness or death. The meditation is folded into our psyche as we depart, trailing behind the ghosts of St. Vincent’s, now a high-rise condo, and filled with fact and imagination of St. Vincent’s as it once was.
Rattlestick Playwrights Theater’s world premiere of Novenas for a Lost Hospital runs until Oct. 13. Audience members meet at St. John’s in the Village courtyard (218 West 11th St. at Waverly Place). Evening performances are at 7 p.m. Wednesday through Mondays; there is a special 1 p.m. matinee on Sept. 28. For tickets and information, call (212) 627-2556 or visit rattlestick.org. Wear comfortable shoes for standing and some walking.