For those who have lived their entire lives in New York City — and even more peculiarly, in Manhattan — the itch to find something stable and rooted can become an obsession.
Cusi Cram, 50, a playwright and lifelong Manhattanite, scratched and scratched until she came up with “St. Vincent’s: Novenas for a Lost Hospital,” which is being workshopped through Sunday at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater in Greenwich Village.
Not only a play about a unique corner of New York, it is also a search for the substance of what lasts in a city of perpetual flux, framed, ingeniously, around the 161-year history of St. Vincent’s Hospital — a New York institution “that an order of determined women who cared willed into being,” the narrator says. The hospital closed in 2010, the last Catholic medical center in Manhattan.
Here the dead and the living have equal claim to the stage, each other, the audience. They speak and argue across centuries. A 19th-century Haitian revolutionary and hairdresser leans over the shoulder of a 20th-century Irish nurse. One doctor faced with a cholera epidemic in the 1840s trades shoptalk with another who is treating AIDs patients in the 1980s.
A holy man recalls that in a fury, he intended to burn down the old St. Patrick’s Cathedral until he had a whiskey, neat, on Mott Street and thought better of it. In the early 1990s, dying men have sex in a hospital ward, or imagine that they did, and share their fantasies with the first American-born saint, Elizabeth Bayley Seton, who danced with George Washington at one of his birthday parties and has been dead for about 160 years.
“You were my favorite hallucination, next to Marcello Mastroianni,” one man tells her. “The things he did to me on this bed.”
Seton replies: “I saw. It was very educational.”
The play grew, Ms. Cusi said, from discussions with Rattlestick’s artistic director, Danielle Topol, about moving theater outside the walls of a building — “St. Vincent’s” closes with a procession of the audience to a memorial park — and her collaboration with Guy Lancaster, a dramaturge who tracked ironies and graces across centuries.
In a note on the research, Mr. Lancaster writes: “Survivors of the Titanic had been brought here. Ambulances rushed to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. Babe Ruth had beamed from his St. Vincent’s hospital bed. Dylan Thomas had given up the ghost here. Edna St. Vincent Millay was named after the place. The hospital was an essential hub for survivors of 9/11 and a place where the city spontaneously confronted its communal grief and disorientation. And, pre-eminently, St. Vincent’s became the epicenter of AIDS research and treatment on the East Coast.”
Most of those stories are evoked but not lingered on. Instead, a prevailing theme is the complex relationship between science and religion, surfacing in the 19th century when a doctor is officially — though not really — forbidden to do anatomy studies by Catholic scruples over the defilement of bodies. In the 20th century, a doctor wants to apply for a grant to develop a drug that would prevent transmission of H.I.V., saving lives but also removing inhibitions to unprotected sex. The sister in charge tells him that church hierarchy opposes “prophylactic” practices.
“But I am trying to prevent infection, not conception,” the doctor argues.
The sister replies: “Isn’t there another word we can use?”
“This isn’t Scrabble night at the convent,” retorts the doctor.
Punctuating her remarks with a profanity, the sister says she lives in an apartment and doesn’t “have time to play board games, Doctor!””
The drama is rendered as a Novena, the Catholic ritual of nine days of devotion and prayer. Throughout, the chief narrator is Seton, daughter of New York’s first chief health officer, who says that she’d rather have been a doctor than a saint. Born in 1774 to an Episcopalian family, she converted to Catholicism as a widow and founded the Sisters of Charity to care for the poor. It became a model for 400 religious orders. “She had lit a fuse,” Mr. Lancaster writes. “These women had pioneered what would become the welfare state as they built hospitals, orphanages and schools. In a world where restrictions on women’s agency could be severe they were remaking the social landscape in critical ways.”
The actor Kathleen Chalfant brings Seton to life in this production. The saint’s story was a revelation to Ms. Cram, whose own mother converted to Catholicism. Late in the play, channeling Ms. Cram, a modern character muses about the difficulty of finding roots in the city: “It’s all made for change and turnover. There are starter apartments and short-term leases.”
She goes on to ask: “Where are the ending apartments? Or the life apartments?”
The Elizabeth Seton of “St. Vincent’s” gives an answer about enduring.
“I wasn’t particularly saintly,” she says, “but I was determined — and isn’t it so funny how determination can last and last, and how goodness without determination vanishes.”