“What do you ache for?”
That provocative question lives in the eleventh hour of Shrewd Productions’ “Alabaster” by Audrey Cephaly under the direction of Rudy Ramirez. The title gives much away: an Alabama setting, a porcelain-like precarity, and whiteness. Aches bubble and burst, but so do laughs and the bleats of goats.
Alabaster, Alabama, has always been home to June, a mildly self-deprecating but intuitive folk artist. Deftly played by Liz Beckham, June is a survivor of a horrific disaster that leaves her scarred from head to toe, struggling to cope and heal. But playwright Cephaly gifts us with a smart country woman full of depth, grit, and a willingness to pushback.
Scars, though, are what pull Alice (Shannon Grounds) into the hot Southern fray. The New York-based celebrity photographer turned photojournalist has been on the road interviewing women who’ve undergone physical trauma. When she makes her way to June in Alabaster, Alice finds herself reckoning with her own scars.
Ramirez crafts stellar tension as our women poke and prod through their histories. The touch of a foot or shoulder, the tug of a towel — the attention to physical touch and gesture is hearteningly present.
We also witness this physicality with June’s goats (yes, goats). A sassy and quick Weezy (Jennifer Jennings) embodies both narrator and conscience, calling shots to the plot and challenging June to be brave. Mama goat Bib (Jennie Underwood) is more subdued with a touch of maybe-dementia, but still shows her feisty matriarch self when provoked. This partnership provides great levity and reprieve in moments that dip dark with hurt. Here, Ramirez softly crafts beautiful sequences of silence, salad-eating, and goodbyes.
All of this is housed on an equally hard and soft set at the Dougherty Arts Center, designed by Alex Casillas and dressed by Cortney DeAngelo. On-stage is June’s bedroom. It’s sparse with a simple mismatched bed set, but what hangs along an imagined wall is breathtaking. Painted wooden panels dangle from twine, acrylic catches the light, leaving the colors to gingerly dance. (The paintings are by Leticia Carski.)
A second playing space shares the floor with the audience. Our goats reign (but don’t stay) among stacks of hay, lawn chairs, and a tipped cooler. The scenic design lends itself towards a lovely and jarring game of Eye Spy, every nook and cranny a discovered detail.
June’s home sings of her, paralleling attention to what others would overlook. Because of her observational skills, she is quick to clock Alice’s every move and intention. Although Alice is positioned with power as the photojournalist, she first moves with little skill and fewer ethics. Her questions are leading; her technology triggers. Though her pictures are striking, her mode of capturing is flawed. Alice attempts to distance herself from being a savior, one who seemingly champions beauty beyond skin. By the end of the play, though, June and the audience may be at odds on this.
With so much of what we learn about our characters being told by our characters, how they tell their story matters. What is greatly apparent but never named is how much race and class impact how these women move through the world, especially with an all-white presenting cast. There is a present unevenness to Alice’s dialogue, steeped in privilege and dismissiveness.
June checks some of it, but white feminism sinks its teeth into the softest moments. One comes as Alice shares what pulled her out of her darkest funk. Although she expresses much love and appreciation for a motherly figure, it is tinged with the tokenization of a culture. Food and dress are alluded to as mere props of beauty and comfort. Likewise, Alice’s artistic practice comes off as muted manipulation. With feelings developing between June and Alice, it’s difficult to sit through a line like, “you’re hard to love” from a character more broken then she lets off.
Nevertheless, Shrewd Productions lives up to its name with this complex and funny play. Ramirez’s eye towards tension and release are greatly appreciated in a piece that keeps us both perched and braced. In great moments of disruption, we are pushed to trouble our aches and embrace grief.
“Alabaster” leaves much to chew on, unlike our goat friends who we’ll be sad to leave behind.
Shrewd Productions’ “Alabaster” continues through March 7 at the Dougherty Arts Center. Tickets at shrewdproductions.com