Shrewd Productions' Alabaster
This deeply felt staging of Audrey Cefaly's new play brings us into a home where loss lives to show us when to leave
Reviewed by Robert Faires, Fri., March 6, 2020
Grief keeps no single schedule. When it rises, there's no telling the hour it will set. And we all feel the length of its day differently, each of us in our own personal time zone.
That hard truth has lately come to Alabaster, Ala., hometown to June, the sole survivor of a tornado that devastated her family's farm and June with it. Her parents and young sister were torn away, leaving June alone and scarred – literally as well as emotionally, as the storm pulled the house down upon her. Ever since, June has made what's left of the farm into a hermitage where she can mourn in solitude and avoid others' stares at her skin's freakish map of scars.
But it's those very scars that draw Alice to Alabaster and June. She's come from New York to document them in photographs, as she has with other women who have suffered disfigurements. June knows of Alice's high regard in the field, but though she lets the photographer into her house, she does not let her into her heart. She hides that behind the hard shell she's built to keep her deep, deep sorrow from showing.
Audrey Cefaly's play – which is having 11 productions across the country this year in a National New Play Network rolling world premiere – brings us into a home where loss lives and a stranger has come to look at it and share what she sees. Cefaly recognizes the hold grief can have on us and the hold we can keep on it out of fear of losing touch with those we've lost, and in June and Alice, she gives us characters whose connection with that pain is intimate, and it allows them to forge a natural bond.
Shrewd Productions' staging makes that connection so vivid and immediate that their intimacy with loss becomes ours. The sensitivity that director Rudy Ramirez so frequently and consistently brings to scripts of deep feeling is present here, making space for every expression of emotion in its fullness.
As June, Liz Beckham is an exposed wire, sparking with white-hot emotions that change in an instant – a flash of hurt followed by a glare of suspicion, resentment followed by ache or pride or even joy. She internalizes June's pain so thoroughly that even at her most guarded or cynical or matter-of-fact, we can glimpse it in her eyes, sense it under her skin, threatening to erupt through the scars like outsized veins bulging on the surface. And in a sense, her pain does erupt, in a scene where June experiences the return of the tornado. With the stage drenched in bloodred light (by designer Jen Rogers) and a terrifying sound like a jet engine roaring through the auditorium (from designer Malyssa Quiles), Beckham's June bursts into full-blown panic. The actor holds nothing back, giving us an emotional state so raw it's scary. From it, we grasp the enormity of June's loss and what she's lived in – still lives in – and what her hard shell – cold, combative, distrustful – is all about.
Shannon Grounds' Alice takes most of June's wariness and sniping with equanimity. Though her character could easily come off as a voyeur, observing other people's pain through a camera lens, Grounds imbues Alice with a spirit of compassion, an empathy for where June is. In time we learn that Alice has spent her own time with grief. It's what makes her the only person who can speak directly to June about her life.
The only person, but not the only living being.
The farm is also home to a goat, Weezy, who speaks to June a lot – well, "butts heads with her" might be more apt, as Weezy is usually talking truth to June, which makes June push back, which leads to back-and-forths that get loud and heated with neither giving ground. A talking goat who can see through our defenses and call us out on them is Cefaly's most inspired invention, and here Weezy is embodied in inspired fashion by Jennifer Jennings. In her black "Smooth as Tennessee Whiskey" T and seen-it-all side-eye, she broadcasts that she's not messin' around and not to be messed with. And the actor brings home that no-BS toughness with a bone-dry delivery that makes even her mundane lines funny.
Weezy's only match may be her mom, Bib – also given human form – but Bib is old and weary, as Jennie Underwood makes clear in her performance. Unlike Weezy, Bib rarely speaks, only bleats, but Underwood doesn't need language to tell us something. Her expressions – a look at the audience, her eyes slowly widening in shock; a glare at Weezy, eyes narrowing for a fight – communicate plenty. Bib sleeps for most of the play – a sign of her weariness of life, too – but when she finally lets go, Underwood gives us a moment of release that, while almost totally silent, brims with discovery and wonder.
It's a moment that spins Alabaster in a heartening direction, one where letting go can be a benediction, a saving grace, one where, once grief has finally set, life can move on.
AlabasterDougherty Arts Center, 1110 Barton Springs Rd.
Through March 7
Run time: 1 hr., 50 min.