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BWW Review: NOVENAS FOR A LOST HOSPITAL is a Moving Tribute to a New York Institution

BWW Review: NOVENAS FOR A LOST HOSPITAL is a Moving Tribute to a New York InstitutionIn the early 1990's, I was part of a group of performers who regularly did little shows in the AIDS wards of New York City hospitals, including St. Vincent's at West 12th Street and 7th Avenue. Many people are unaware of the hospital's history, opened in 1849 and closed in 2010, but Rattlestick Playwrights Theater and playwright Cusi Cram are determined to change that.

NOVENAS FOR A LOST HOSPITAL, directed by Daniella Topol, is an interactive evening held in three locations that pays tribute to St. Vincent's. Tony Award-nominated and four-time Obie-winning actress Kathleen Chalfant (ANGELS IN AMERICA, WIT) stars as Saint Elizabeth Seton, the first American saint, who established the Sisters of Charity, which later opened the hospital during the cholera epidemic. In the early 1900's, the wards also treated survivors of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire and the sinking of the Titanic.

The play began in the courtyard of St. John's in the Village, which served as a haven for many during the height of the AIDS crisis. Actors and singers greeted us there for a ritualistic prologue/invocation, which included dance, as well as chanting and response. It wasn't entirely clear how it related to what came next, but I found it moving, just the same.

The audience was then led into Rattlestick's theater, where an exhibit about the hospital, the cholera epidemic, and the AIDS epidemic were on display. Blue butterflies hung down from the ceiling, each of which carried a small piece of paper with a remembrance of the hospital from someone who had sat in the audience. Anyone wishing to write a remembrance for the ceiling display was also given a blue butterfly to take home. (The papers will later be turned into an art installation.) We were also given small battery-operated candles to turn on and off throughout the performance.

The meat of the play involved Chalfant as St. Elizabeth Seton and Alvin Keith (CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF) as 19th century Haitian hairdresser and former slave Pierre Toussaint, who was a philanthropist and benefactor of the Catholic Church at the time. (As of 1996, he was declared Venerable by the Pope, which is the second step toward sainthood.) His direct connection to St. Vincent's was never made clear, however, and I'm not sure there is one.

The play moved back and forth in time with the players changing roles that were sometimes alive and sometimes ghosts. Throughout, the characters narrated the history of St. Vincent's Hospital in nine sections that represented the Novenas. Meaning "nine" in Latin, a novena is an ancient tradition in Christianity of nine devotional prayers.

Most moving and successful were the sections about the modern AIDS epidemic and arguments among the characters about the current state of hospitals and health care. Some sections were overly long and became a bit laborious, but the overall result of the evening was a touching tribute to an institution that served the city for more than 160 years.

The slow parts of the script were largely saved by the actors. Besides Chalfant and Keith, standouts among the cast included Ken Barnett (MOZART IN THE JUNGLE) and Justin Genna.

The night ended at its third, and most emotionally affecting, location outside at the NYC AIDS Memorial at St. Vincent's Triangle across the street from the hospital's former location, where audience members left their candles.

The production is presented in partnership with Village Preservation, The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, & Transgender Community Center, NYC AIDS Memorial Board, NYU Rory Meyers College of Nursing, St. John's in the Village, and Visual AIDS.

It runs Wednesday-Monday through October 13, 2019. Tickets are available at

Photo credit: Julieta Cervantes

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From This Author Melanie Votaw