Joy Vandervort-Cobb is brilliant in the one-woman show The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, written by Jane Wagner and made famous by Lily Tomlin. In the play, Trudy, a crooked-mouthed “mentally unstable bag lady from New York City” who first appears in a purple jumpsuit waiting for aliens “at the corner of Walk/Don’t Walk,” challenges assumptions about the nature of reality, declaring that we all at one point ask ourselves, “Am I crazy?” For her, she says, the answer came back “a resounding ‘yes.’” However, as Trudy explains, “Going crazy was ... the best thing that ever happened to me,” as “reality is the leading cause of stress.” Trudy now enjoys the freedom of “crazy” and is a creative consultant to aliens from outer space. She also “picks up signals,” or snatches of other peoples’ lives.
In The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life, Vandervort-Cobb plays not only the bag lady but a host of other personas whose lives intersect with Trudy’s. Vandervort-Cobb’s versatility is stunning: she becomes by turns a divorced bodybuilder health nut/cokehead/sperm donor who wonders about his child; a rich, unhappy woman with a botched haircut who frets about dying of boredom; a troubled 15-year-old girl, Agnes; a constantly bickering older couple (Agnes’ grandparents, Lud and Marie); two prostitutes, Tina and Brandi; Marge, an addict and rape victim; and a woman trying to keep work and family together while her life is unraveling.
The staging and set are simple, but all to effect. The set construction by Robert Ashley consists of black walls decorated with stars and creatively colored umbrellas. The mix of classical music and songs from the ’80s reflects the changing moods of characters, and the sound is perfectly in sync with Trudy’s movements, most significantly when the noise of electrical flashes signal Trudy’s “irregular brain activity.” The lighting by designer Jerrad Aker and technician Robert Townsend draws attention to these significant moments.
Although Trudy is crazy, she is a “wise fool,” speaking unexpected truths while pondering science, art, laughter, the development of language, the meaning of life, and what it means to be human. The play addresses social problems concerning the environment, poverty, women, and homosexuality, to name a few.
In the two-hour performance with one intermission, Vandervort-Cobb never wavers: she is phenomenal throughout. The play and performance are gut-wrenching yet hilariously funny, often at the same time. And apparently, this is the last season the Charleston actress will play Trudy, so don’t miss her. She’s a gem.
The play leaves you pondering the fragility of life, the ripple effects of our actions, and the connections between all of us. Though the characters try to have thick skins (teenage Agnes says at one point, “The trick is not to mind it”), the problems of life inevitably break them down. Though The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life never becomes preachy, it stresses the importance of paying attention to other people’s lives, however dysfunctional, and the importance of listening — really listening. But more than anything, it’s about our capacity to stand in awe in front of the strangeness and beauty of our humanity.