Review: Alchemy Theatre’ Company’s “The Waverly Gallery” Features a Stunning Central Performance in a Very Emotional Play

Welcome to the second original review to appear on this blog! This time around, I’m looking at the second outing in the premier season of a company that’s new to Austin theater, The Alchemy Theatre Company, and its production of Kenneth Lonergan’s The Waverly Gallery (running through October 5th at the Mastrogeorge Theater).

Though the play itself is twenty years old at this point (it was a finalist for the 2001 Pulitzer Prize), The Waverly Gallery has reentered public consciousness in recent years thanks to a 2018 Broadway revival that featured an all-star cast and garnered a Tony Award for Best Actress for Elaine May. When it comes time for awards season in Austin, the same role may prove bountiful for the beating heart of this production, local treasure Babs George.

The Waverly Gallery is a memory play, focusing on a young man’s reminiscence of his grandmother’s final few years of life as she descends further and further into dementia due to Alzheimer’s disease. Though we see the story through the eyes of the grandson, Daniel (played here with a delightfully dry sense of warmth and growing frustration by Ruben Caballero), it is his grandmother’s story that carries the momentum of the play.

As Gladys Green, Babs George transforms over the course of the play. From the opening scene, when we see a slightly befuddled, but still smart and funny, older woman whose lapses might be due as much to a faulty hearing aid as a faulty memory, through to her final descent into horrified hallucinations and total confusion, George never handles the character than anything less than full love, sympathy, and understanding. She gives us a glimpse into the indomitable lawyer and crusader for progress who Gladys once was, making her current state of decreasing functionality even more deeply tragic.

Lonergan’s text rides the line between a philosophical look at ageing and death, a naturalist presentation of family dynamics, and a deeply felt love letter to those suffering from Alzheimer’s and similar diseases. Ms. George is the most adept performer at carrying the emotional weight of the text, but the rest of the cast are equally at home in recreating the natural nuances of both conversation and heartbreak. Kim Jackson Davis, as Ellen—Gladys’ daughter and Daniel’s mother—is particularly notable for showing how a façade of strength is often a razor-thin mask for explosive turmoil and sadness within.

Director Michael Cooper knows that he’s dealing with heavy material here, and thus never fails to highlight a moment of warmth or humor within the story, while lighting designer Kelsi Bodin creates a brightly lit world that emphasizes the emotional shadows within the characters. The only downside, production-wise, is the frequent and lengthy scene transitions that cut harshly into the narrative momentum, working against the free flow of memories that the text is trying to evoke.

Fortunately, Ms. George’s performance is so bravura that she is able to pull the audience right back into any scene that features her. And therein lies the key to Alchemy Theatre’s production of The Waverly Gallery—an amazing lead performance that is so strong that it more than makes up for any failings.

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An interview with . . . me!

My graduate school alma mater – the Department of American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin – just posted an interview with me on the department blog, AMS::ATX.

Check it out and get a bit more information about my book, plus learn my advice to current grad students!

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Review: The Mamalogues

Today I’m excited to start a brand new feature on this blog! Because there’s so much amazing, dynamic theater out there in Austin, and understandably the Austin American-Statesman can only send me to cover so much, I’m going to be doing some occasional theater reviews that are unique to this site!

The first of these is the world premiere of a brand new play by “the play doctor,” Austin’s own Lisa B. Thompson, called The Mamalogues.

Photo by Steve Rogers Photography

Co-produced by Color Arc Productions and The VORTEX (and playing through September 7th at the VORTEX), The Mamalogues is a moving, funny, inspiring exploration of black motherhood in today’s America.

Unlike some of Thompson’s recent work to grace the Austin stage, The Mamalogues is not a straight-forward realist drama, but rather (as the title might suggest) a series of deep dives into varying aspects of motherhood. While some of these are universal (like the physical nature of labor pains), others are specific to single black mothers, such as how to talk to their children about racism or what it’s like developing friendships with white mothers who can never fully understand their experience.

The moral force of the play, then, is aimed in two directions. First, Thompson clearly wants to create a work that sees and is seen by black women, representing their experiences and struggles in a way that we don’t often find in our mainstream art and media. She mines equally the moments of joy, wonder, heartbreak, and sorrow that are a part of being a mother (or even a parent in general), but then ties those specifically into experiences that are unique to black women, finding the universal in both the quotidian and the particular.

In doing so, though, the secondary power of the text shines through, creating a vehicle for non-black audiences to understand just how difficult and worrisome it is to be the parent of a black child in today’s America. After all, as Thompson reminds us, the paranoia that every parent feels about the world wanting to hurt their child is natural; but for black parents, that paranoia is real and justified.

Of course, this message wouldn’t land were it not for powerful performances by the three leading ladies–Yvonne Oaks, Valoneecia Tolbert, and Melody Ann Fullylove. Representing motherhood in three different stages, each woman speaks to the specific experiences of her character while at the same time transforming into a variety of roles as called for by the melange of memory and fantasy. They work remarkably well as an ensemble, with director Rudy Ramirez helping them create a full world on the stage with no more than their bodies and three chairs. Tolbert, especially, excels at tapping into the play’s most heartbreaking moments, and delivering some of its most hilarious witticisms.

The Mamalogues is a vibrant and vital piece of theater that will speak to all audience members, whether they are mothers or not, and serves as a potent reminder–just when we need it the most–that sometimes the most heroic thing we can do as humans is to stand up to a cruel world and protect those around us.

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Late August Updates

It’s been a busy, busy summer in my day job as a copywriter, so I’ve had to go a little light on the reviewing. Fortunately, the summer tends to be a slower time, so I haven’t completely abandoned my duties!

Here’s a quick round-up of my last few reviews and preview stories of Austin theater:

Q&A: Trans and nonbinary lives take center stage in ‘Transom’

Review: ‘Ann’ at Zach Theatre is a moving antidote to political despair

‘American Blood Song’ tells the story of the Donner Party with puppets and song

Summer Stock Austin finds the fun in a not-quite-timeless story

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Reviews/Previews Catch-Up!

It’s been a busy kick-off to the summer, so I’ve once more gotten lax about posting updates.

Better late than never, here’s a complete list of all the reviews (and a few preview interviews!) I’ve written for the Austin American-Statesman since my last post:

Terrence McNally’s ‘Immortal Longings’ dances with beauty and agony

Talking ‘Lady Macbeth and Her Pal, Megan,’ female anger and comedy

On prophetic lines, power of money in Hyde Park Theatre’s ‘Death Tax’

‘Dry Land’ takes on the issue of abortion with nuance and sympathy

GenEnCo’s ‘Black Girl Love’ is about seeing, being seen

‘The Book of Will’ is a charming historical love letter

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At last—Hamilton!

The national tour Hamilton has finally made its way to Austin, and I have two pieces up about it.

First, here’s an interview with this production’s Alexander Hamilton, Joseph Morales:

‘Hamilton’ in Austin: What’s it like to fill Lin-Manuel Miranda’s shoes on tour?

Shoba Narayan and Joseph Morales in Hamilton.

And second, here’s my review of the show itself:

‘Hamilton’ in Austin review: It’s as good as you’ve heard

Enjoy, and be sure not to throw away your shot!

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I am excited to announce the release of The World of DC Comics!

My second book–The World of DC Comics–has just been released today from one of my favorite academic publishers, Routledge!

I’m very excited to have this out there, as I’ve spent the last couple of years (and roughly the last couple decades prior to that) thinking about the DC Comics multiverse and its implications for long-form narratives of imaginary worlds. Now you can finally read the fruits of that labor!

Additionally, this seems like a good opportunity for a roundup of recent theater reviews that I’ve been lax about posting:

Austin Playhouse’s ‘Copenhagen’ brings specificity to uncertainty

Step into an intense, post-truth world in Street Corner Arts’ ‘The Letters’

Kids will love the ‘Treasure Island in the Bay of Bengal,’ a family-friendly, multicultural adventure

‘Severe Weather Warning’ celebrates — and tests — female friendship, with wine

‘The Children’ asks what we’d sacrifice in disaster-bound world

‘Cats’ in Austin review: It doesn’t make sense, but they sure can dance

‘The Ballad of Klook and Vinette’ is a sexy new musical at Zach

Finally, check out this video of my recent Nerd Nite Austin talk all about my first book, Retcon Game: Retroactive Continuity and the Hyperlinking of America.

Most importantly, though, buy my new book!

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‘Matilda the Musical’ at Zach is a confused, energetic fairy tale

I’ll have three more reviews this weekend that should hopefully go up early next week, but for now here’s just one new review, Matilda the Musical at ZACH Theatre.

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One touring show, one local show

I’m actually keeping up with posting all of my publications for once, so here’s two more recent shows I reviewed, one a national tour and one a very local, home-grown affair.

‘Last: An Extinction Comedy’ at the Vortex is a fun romp with a message

The national tour of ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ is more timely than ever

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Salvage Vanguard’s Greek tragedy adaptation is bizarre, baffling and beautiful

As I try to keep up with posting my reviews as they’re actually published, here’s just one new review, of Salvage Vanguard’s strange and exciting new version of the Antigone story, titled Antigonick.

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