Rattlestick Playwrights Theater and other locations
224 Waverly Pl.
Wednesday - Monday through October 13, $20-$60
Cusi Cram’s Novenas for a Lost Hospital is part historical walking tour, part theatrical drama, honoring the legacy of St. Vincent’s in Greenwich Village, guiding sixty guests a night from a church courtyard to a theater to the park across the street from where the nonprofit Catholic hospital stood from its beginnings as a one-room medical facility founded by the Daughters of Charity in 1849 until April 2010, when it closed due to ballooning debt and questionable redevelopment plans. In the two-plus-hour show, longtime West Village residents Cram, Rattlestick artistic director Daniella Topol, and dramaturg Guy Lancaster relate the history of St. Vincent’s, a Level 1 trauma institution and teaching hospital that treated victims of the cholera epidemic in 1849, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911, the Titanic sinking in 1912, the FALN bombing in 1975, and the 9/11 attacks in 2001.
But the hospital is perhaps most well known for being front and center battling the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and 1990s, which is what Cram focuses on from the start, in the courtyard of St. John’s in the Village, where a singer (Goussy Celestin) welcomes everyone, hands are ritually washed, a quartet does the Hustle, and an ailing man bathes himself with agonizing difficulty. The action then heads indoors to the Rattlestick black box, where a collection of newspaper articles and photographs about St. Vincent’s are on display on upturned gurneys. After they are wheeled out, a long, repetitive, melodramatic middle section switches back and forth between 1849 and more contemporary times, led by Sisters of Charity founder and first American-born saint Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton (Kathleen Chalfant), who is accompanied by Sister Mary Ulrica (Natalie Woolams-Torres) and Sister Mary Angela Hughes (Kelly McAndrew) in the past and a pair of nurses (Woolams-Torres and McAndrew) more recently.
They are visited by flamboyant Afro-Caribbean slave, hairdresser, and philanthropist Pierre Toussaint (Alvin Keith) as they treat a series of patients, primarily Lazarus (Ken Barnett), so named because he won’t die, his boyfriend (Justin Genna), and choreographer JB (Justin Genna). “A crisis can be very grounding. Purposeful,” Lazarus tells the audience. “Not dying was my job for three years. And before that, trying to save everyone I loved or admired from dying a miserable, humiliating death was my job.”
Ultimately, the show, which is divided into nine novenas, including “A Prayer for the Reluctantly Resurrected,” “A Prayer for the Forgotten,” and “A Prayer for the Beauty of Chaos,” makes its way through the streets to NYC AIDS Memorial Park for a grand finale that brings everything full circle. Despite plenty of bumps and slow moments, Novenas for a Lost Hospital is a touching communal experience, a unique eulogy for an institution that helped define a neighborhood — and a city — through more than a century and a half and is now a memory of a bygone era when money wasn’t everything and individual lives mattered.