Alice in Black and White
Looking for Lilith Theatre Company
Written by Robin Rice
Kathi E.B. Ellis
59E59, New York City
Casual fans of street photography may not recognize the name Alice Austen, instead favoring Bill Cunningham or Humans of New York. In Robin Rice’s account of Alice’s life, we see the life of a trailblazer in both the personal and public realms.
The play takes place in two times: the first, Alice’s path through life; the second, how two people in 1951 go about trying to locate this woman from the past and resurrect her memory. At points, the characters of Alice (Jennifer Thalman Keppler) and 1951’s Oliver (Joseph Hatfield) communicate; the latter is working on a book called The Revolt of American Women and longs to include Austen in his work.
As the protagonist, Keppler moves through a lifetime of relationships, personal values and socio-political changes deftly. Her initial (slightly distracting) exuberance tempers as Alice grows into her teens, though the character’s stubborn single-mindedness never falters.
As Alice’s mother (Shannon Woolley Allison) and indulgent grandfather (Ted Lesley) implore her to find a husband, Alice rejects their advice and forms a relationship with a visitor from Queens – Gertrude Tate (Laura Ellis). A flawed heroine, Alice fails to grasp the importance of supporting herself – and while she doesn’t realize the implications at the time, she also overlooks the impact the stock market crash of 1929 will have on her in the years to come.
Meanwhile, in 1951, Oliver arrives at the Staten Island Historical Society on the lookout for some photographic negatives that his assistant had pinpointed as being in a trunk in the basement. The problem? Sally Lally (Trina Fischer), volunteer receptionist and aspiring Curator of the collection, who refuses to go against policy and let him inspect the contents of the trunk. It’s difficult to trace the emotional line of their story, and if there were more chemistry between the two leads – or clearly not more chemistry – it might be easier to do so.
The production benefits from a sparing set, which consists of a table, some chairs and some props (mostly cameras, but some tea implements as well), and lighting is used mostly to emphasize moments when Oliver and Alice seem to communicate across space and time. The metaphysical aspects of the play don’t receive a lot of explanation, and the audience is left to wonder how Oliver and Austen shared this bond across the decades, but in the end those moments seem incidental to the plot anyways. My one major critique of the play is that the relationship between Oliver and Lally doesn’t feel as if it grows organically, instead feeling superimposed on the characters.
For those who were already fans of Austen, Rice’s lens will no doubt prove a delightful delving into a woman of historical import. For those unaware of Alice’s work, the play offers just enough of a taste of the photographer’s personality and approach to life to whet the appetite.
Alice in Black and White is playing until August 14th at 59E59 theatre in New York City.