Determined to put on All’s Well That Ends Well, despite a rebellious cast that wants to stage Macbeth, Miranda Fitch battles excruciating back pain, a dependence on painkillers, a failed marriage, and a career in crisis in this darkly funny tale.
Mona Awad’s new novel, All’s Well, tells the story of a theater professor who is convinced that staging this rarely produced play will cure her woes—and an eerie trio of helpers who offer a tempting promise for her future.
In this excerpt, Miranda tries to watch a video clip of a scene from the play, only to find herself viewing a surreal, glowingly positive, narrative unfolding in the imagined world of painkiller ads.
All’s Well was published in August by Simon & Schuster.
“For a long time, I had no hope,” the woman in the drug commercial says now. “But then my doctor prescribed me Eradica.”
And then on the screen, there appears a cylindrical pill backlit by a wondrous white light. The pill is half the yellow of fast-food America, half the institutional blue of a physical therapist’s polo shirt. I believe it would help you, my physiatrist once said of this very drug, his student/scribe typing our conversation into a laptop in a corner, looking up at me now and then with fear. I was standing up because I couldn’t physically sit at the time, hovering over both of them like a wind-warped tree. I still have a sample pack of the drug somewhere in my underwear drawer amid the thongs and lacy tights I don’t wear anymore because I am dead on the inside.
Now I attempt to hit the play button in the bottom left corner of the YouTube screen, to skip past this hideous ad to the video I actually want to watch. Act One, Scene One of All’s Well That Ends Well, the play we are staging this term. Helen’s crucial soliloquy.
Nothing. Still the image of the blue-and-yellow pill suspended in midair, spinning.
Your video will play after ad, it reads in a small box in the bottom corner of the screen. No choice. No choice then but to lie here and listen to how there is hope thanks to Eradica. The one pill I didn’t try, because the side effects scared me more than the pain. No choice but to watch the bad actress bicycle in the idyllic afternoon of the drug commercial with a blandly handsome man who I presume is her fake husband. He is dressed in a reassuring plaid. He reminds me of the male torso on the Brawny paper towels I buy out of wilted lust. Also of my ex-husband, Paul. Except that this man is smiling at his fake wife. Not shaking his head. Not saying, Miranda, I’m at a loss.
Knock, knock at my door. “Miranda?”
I take a drag of my cigarette. Date night now, apparently, in the drug commercial. The actress and fake hubby are having dinner at a candlelit restaurant. Oysters on the half shell to celebrate her return from the land of the dead. Toasting her new wellness with flutes of champagne, even though alcohol is absolutely forbidden on this drug. He gets up from the table, holds out his hand, appearing to ask her to dance. She is overcome with emotion. Tears glint in her eyes as she accepts. And then this woman is dancing, actually dancing with her husband at some sort of discotheque that only exists in the world of the drug commercial. We don’t hear the sound of the music at the discotheque. The viewer (me) is invited to insert their own music while “some blood cancers” and “kidney failure” are enumerated as side effects by an invisible, whitewashed voice that is godly, lulling, beyond good and evil, stripped of any moral compunction, that simply is.
“Miranda, are you there? Time for rehearsal.”
Watching the actress’s merriment in the discotheque is embarrassing for me. As a drama teacher, as a director. And yet, watching her rock around with her fake husband, wearing her fake smile, her fake pain supposedly gone now, I ask myself, When was the last time you danced?
Knock, knock. “Miranda, we really should get going downstairs.”
A pause, a huff. And then I hear the footsteps fall mercifully away.
Now it is evening in the world of the drug commercial. Another evening, not date night. Sunday evening, it looks like, a family day. The bad actress is sitting in a nylon tent with the fake children she has somehow been able to bear despite her maligned nervous system, her cobwebby womb. Hubby is there too with his Brawny torso and his Colgate grin. He was always there, his smile says. Waiting for her to come back to life. Waiting for her to resume a more human shape. What a hero of a man, the drug commercial seems to suggest with lighting. And their offspring scamper around them wearing pajamas patterned with little monsters, and there are Christmas lights strung all across the ceiling of the tent like an early-modern idea of heaven. She smiles wanly at the children, at the lights. Her skin is no longer gray and crepey. It is dewy and almost human-colored. Her brow is unfurrowed. She is no longer trying to take a shit, she took it. She wears eye shadow now. There’s a rose gloss on her lips, a glowing peach on her cheeks (bronzer?) that seems to come from the inside. Even her fashion sense has mildly improved. She cares about what she wears now. For she is supposedly pain-free. LESS PAIN is actually written in glowing white script beside her face.
But I don’t believe it. It’s a lie. And I say it to the screen, I say, Liar. And yet I cry a little. Even though I do not believe her joy any more than I believed her pain. A thin, ridiculous tear spills from my eyelid corner down to my ear, where it pools hotly. The wanly smiling woman, the bad actress, has moved me in spite of myself. The fires on the left side of my lower body rage quietly on. The fist in my mid-back clenches. The fat man settles into the chair that crushes my foot. He picks up a newspaper. Checks his stock.
But at least my video, the one I’ve been waiting for—where Helen gives her soliloquy, the one where she says yes, the cosmos appears fixed but she can reverse it—is about to play.
And then just like that, my laptop screen freezes, goes black. Dead. A battery icon appears and then fades.
Excerpted from All’s Well by Mona Awad. Copyright © 2021 by Mona Awad. Courtesy of Simon & Schuster.