In a little over 50 years after her death in 1963, the life of Sylvia Plath has become well known. Or perhaps more accurately, the death of Sylvia Plath is now well known. The story of her suicide and the events surrounding it are passed around like a children’s horror tale — “Did you hear about the woman who stuck her head in an oven?” — or else casually dropped into conversation as some sort of “fun fact” for literature enthusiasts. But beyond that, or before that, before the woman who would be turned into a feminist martyr and macabre caricature, Sylvia Plath remains a subject of intense debate.
These debates have been brought into the limelight once again with playwright Lynne Kaufman’s one-woman show, “Who Killed Sylvia Plath.” The title is only slightly ironic. Sylvia Plath killed herself, after all; that is a fairly irrefutable fact, one of the few things surrounding her death that isn’t argued over. Kaufman, however, isn’t interested in disputing facts. Her aim is to explore three main questions, delivered by the play’s fictionalized version of Sylvia Plath at the beginning of the show: Why did she do it? Would she do it again? Was it a good career move?
Performing the role of Sylvia Plath is Bay Area actress Lorri Holt, who walks on stage in a medium-length skirt and blue cardigan like the classic ‘50s housewife that Slyvia Plath was expected to be. The accompanying tune is Taylor Swift’s “Look What You Made Me Do” — a pretty overt message to start the show. Interestingly enough, Holt plays Sylvia Plath not only as a deceased person reflecting on her life from beyond the grave but also as an older woman reminiscing about her younger days. In one way, this casting feels disingenuous; Plath died at the age of 30, and perhaps the play would have held more emotional weight if it chose to emphasize how young she really was.
On the other hand, it’s hard to complain when Holt puts on such a killer performance. Solo shows can pose a challenge when it comes to keeping the energy up, for the sake of both the audience and the actor on stage, but Holt takes on this challenge with ease. Her presence on stage is powerful and volatile, shifting from intense bouts of anger and passion to quieter introspection within mere minutes. Her movement is equally dynamic as well, despite working in a small area with only two chairs and a coffin as set pieces, Holt bounces around endlessly from one end of the stage to another. Even toward the end of her 70-minute run, Holt’s Plath feels just as frantic, demanding and intellectually brilliant as she was in the beginning.
But what of the subject itself? At this point, it seems as though Sylvia Plath’s life has been picked apart so thoroughly that nothing can be said without dredging up some old, unwinnable debate. In fact, the play even touches on how Plath’s daughter, Frieda Hughes, has objected to the constant appropriation of her mother’s image. When speaking out against a 2003 BBC film, “Sylvia,” Hughes wrote a poem, stating, “They think I should give them my mother’s words / To fill the mouth of their monster / Their Sylvia Suicide Doll.”
Holt, briefly taking on the perspective of Frieda Hughes, delivers a speech of a similar vein, disparaging the “Sylvia Plath death industry.” It’s another brilliant moment of acting, but it also raises an uncomfortable question: Is this play any different from a movie like “Sylvia”? The answer may very well be no; perhaps Kaufman simply doesn’t take Frieda Hughes’ word as law and instead finds meaning in being able to share Plath’s story. At the very least, this scene leaves a sour aftertaste to what should have been an overall incredible show.
Ultimately, like the poet herself, “Who Killed Sylvia Plath” is a bit of a quandary. It’s smart and well-performed, but it unearths a series of moral questions that are just too big to be dealt with in 70 minutes.
‘Who Killed Sylvia Plath’ is playing at The Marsh in Berkeley through Oct. 20.