Alabaster is a city in northern Alabama (a suburb of Birmingham actually). It’s also a soft stone, a form of gypsum, that’s translucent, easily carved and often used for decorative objects. After seeing a moving production of Audrey Cefaly’s Alabaster, a story about two women scarred both literally and figuratively by disasters, at 16th Street Theater, my friend and I were transfixed with the meaning of alabaster and its significance in the play.
June (Mandy Walsh) survived a massive tornado that barreled through north Alabama, destroying everything in its path. June survived with her wise and wisecracking goat Weezy (Wendye Clarendon), but her face and body are covered with cuts, slashes, puncture wounds and scars from the destruction of the barn and house around her. Alice (Jessica Kadish) is a celebrity photographer from New York. She’s photographing a series of women who are wounded and scarred from various illnesses or disasters. June is the seventh women in her series.
Ann Filmer directs this two-hander—another story of two lost souls yearning for a connection. It’s a two-hander because June and Alice are the only two human characters. Weezy is a sort of rustic Greek chorus, played amusingly by Clarendon. There is a fourth character: Bib (Patricia Donegan), Weezy’s old, sick mama. She’s there throughout the play, resting or sleeping side stage.
Alice has just arrived and is setting up her equipment in June’s bedroom. That gives June (and the playwright) the opportunity to get the story out. June questions Alice about her work, her other subjects, and her life. Alice asks June how she found her, since June says she doesn’t do online and has a dumb phone—“and I like it that way.” A friend told June about Alice’s project and June went to the library for more information and answered Alice’s ad. Her librarian cousin had seen Alice’s photos in an exhibit in D.C. and “she wanted me to ask you why people in your pictures look so sad all the time and then I looked at your pictures and I saw it too. The sadness, I mean.“
Alice interviews June for a video segment and that serves the same purpose: June talks about the “accident” and asks Alice about her life. Alice tells her that she had a partner, who was killed in a car accident while pregnant with their baby.
June manages the farm and also paints large colorful works on pieces of barn wood. But June rejects Alice’s efforts to get exposure for her art. Over the course of the day, the cranky farmer/folk-artist and the urban sophisticate become friends and a bit more. June hasn’t left the farm for 945 days, she admits. Now Alice is heading for Atlanta. Will June join her?
Alabaster is a story with more than an edge of tragedy, as two women fight for their lives. There are plenty of scratches on the skin of life. It’s not sweet or nice but you will cheer them on in their fight.
Near the end, June sums up the impact of Alice’s project. “You have this thing in you, this gift. It’s how you see people, Alice. I don’t know how you do it, but it’s amazin’. And this thing now with these women…and the way that you come to where we are and you see ‘it’ and you see us and you see how broken we are and you see the beauty instead and you tell us that we’re beautiful and not for one second did I think I was beautiful, in my whole life nobody ever said I was beautiful, but you did and I won’t ever be the same after that.”
Filmer’s direction moves this skittish relationship along smoothly and both Walsh and Kadish truly inhabit their characters. Sydney Lynne’s scenic design is a large lovely bedroom filled with art, light and shadow (lighting design is by Benjamin White). Projections of June’s art, Alice’s images and exterior scenes are by Anthony Churchill. Weezy and Bib’s side yard also gets sensitive lighting treatment. Original music and sound design are by Barry Bennett. Costumes are by Rachel Sypniewski
This production is a National New Play Network rolling world premiere with 11 theaters across the country in Florida, California, Texas, Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Utah, Oregon and New Jersey. Another Audrey Cefaly play, The Gulf, is currently being staged by About Face Theatre at Theater Wit. Both are beautifully written plays about two women confined to a space (a boat or a room). I found Alabaster more interesting with more complexity to the plot and nuance in the characters.
Alabaster continues at 16th Street Theater at the Berwyn Cultural Center, 6420 W. 16th St., through March 1. Tickets are $18-$30 for performances Thursday-Sunday. Running time is two hours, including one intermission.