Sunday, October 10, 2021

Fatal stars fall on Alabama: Phoenix Theatre reopens with desolate, hopeful 'Alabaster'

Going back to the city's concert halls and theaters these days feels like entering a medical facility. As necessary as the protocols are for arts presenters getting back up to speed, I've felt both apprehensive and excited on the way in: mask in place, vaccination evidence at the ready. The healing implications of art have rarely been so clearly outlined.

June makes Alice's job a little harder as Weezy looks on.

This was particularly brought home to me attending "Alabaster" at Phoenix Theatre Saturday night. The National New Play Network's rolling world premiere of Audrey Cefaly's searing drama places us in an atmosphere of suffering and deep privation. The difficult work of healing is held out, but withdrawn or compromised or mystified along the way. Of the four female characters, the focus of the process is June, the only survivor of her family's and its farm's devastation by an Alabama tornado. Recovery from severe physical injuries has left behind stalled recovery from emotional wounds.

A stranger enters June's paltry life of suffering because she has opened herself up to a high-profile New York photographer's project of documenting scarred women. Working out her own issues of personal loss, Alice spars with June. Putting their dukes up, two self-guarded women move combatively toward mutual understanding, then intimacy. The dialogue is sometimes cryptic and tensely spaced, sometimes caustic and overlapping. Director Jolene Mentink Moffat draws from her cast ceaseless virtuosity of pacing and intensity.

Cefaly is attentive to multiple ironies. The action and setting are carried to the brink of allegory. Alabaster is a small city south of Birmingham. The name inevitably brings to mind the most delusional line in "America the Beautiful": "Thine alabaster cities gleam, undimmed by human tears." And you can find out about the human cost of Alabama tornadoes since 1950 with an interactive map published by the Montgomery Advertiser: currently the death toll stands at the biblically suggestive 666. 

The playwright is cagey about the pace and extent of revelations. Sometimes they spill out, sometimes they are oblique to the point of bafflement. Thus the unmistakable spiritual side of "Alabaster" is hidden. It is perhaps best represented by the character of Weezy, even though she tells us right off that she's a goat.  She is also a neighbor, whose check on June is divided with attention to her dying mother, who's observant but incapable of intelligible speech. In a program note, the playwright explicitly states: "She is an instrument of the  Divine."

In Weezy there are suggestions of ancient cultures: she is a Greek chorus addressing the audience, and her role on the farm draws upon the tradition of Roman household gods (Penates) who were thought to offer protection for rural families around the hearth. Similarly, her way of healing June's woes is slow to take shape, though it's constant insofar as she habitually challenges the bereft young woman's defense mechanisms. That task, which is fortunately advanced by the mission-driven energy of Alice, is more than hard. Simone Weil, the World War II-era French Catholic ascetic and icon of suffering, wrote something that illuminates this kind of difficulty. It also sheds light on Cefaly's anti-realistic style: "Impossibility is the door of the supernatural," Weil says. "We can only knock at it. Someone else opens it."

The paintings that June makes on wood salvaged from the destroyed barn arouse Alice's professional

Bib (Jan Lucas) grooms June (Maria Argentina Souza).

interest. Empathy grows as well between them, as Alice is trying to keep herself together in part to resume a well-established career while applying her skills to documenting female suffering. Yet she unwisely pushes careerism on June — the need to get an agent, to market her art: "That's how it is," she explains. June scoffs: "Gravity is how it is," she shoots back. 

But gravity had proved not so basic when the tornado struck, a fact constantly before the audience with various household items and portions of wall suspended above the stage. The show includes one tremendous flashback to June's darkest day.

Saturday's performances had extraordinary force. Lauren Briggeman brings to the role of Alice a well-honed gift for playing women whose practiced strength barely hides profound vulnerability. That may be why her performance in the title role of Phoenix's "Typhoid Mary" has stayed with me so well since 2015. 

Maria Argentina Souza's June walks an even riskier line, because the character is not able to justify her isolation to herself; her immersion in loss fails to point a way out of bereavement. June's hostility and nihilism had a kind of fierce nobility in Souza's portrayal, even as it turned believably toward the prospect of renewal. 

Joanne Kehoe's Weezy, a mediator by nature, reflected an odd but convincing death-in-the-midst-of-life poise. As Bib, Weezy's mother, Jan Lucas shuffled about with meek eloquence amid a litany of wordless moans, cries and babble. At one point, however, and I say this stepping close to dreaded spoiler territory, she bursts into the beloved gospel song "I'll Fly Away." It's in character, of course, but to get to hear Jan Lucas in her other professional metier gave goosebump joy. 

Such moments are few in "Alabaster," but what else is there provides occasion enough to look for further such occasions. It's part of what healing means.

[Photos by Gray Dragon Photography]



  1. That was such a perfect review it nearly made me weep--mostly because it went so much deeper than my interpretations of the metaphors and character quirks. Thank you for helping me better understand the things I'd missed or misunderstood. I thought the play was fabulous--and I look forward to reading more of your reviews!

    1. I'm moved by the degree to which my review may have enhanced an already special experience for you. Thanks for reading.

  2. Excellent review Jay, thank you! I had the experience Sunday and will see it again during the run!

    1. Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment. "Alabaster" indeed merits a return visit. Enjoy!