Review: Shrewd Productions’ “Alabaster” showcases a quartet of Austin’s finest actresses

Another blog-exclusive review for you—the Rolling World Premier of Audrey Cefaly’s Alabaster, playing through March 7th at the Dougherty Arts Center.

The National New Play Network (NNPN) is one of the most important institutions of American theater in the past two decades. Self-described “an alliance of professional theaters that collaborate in innovative ways to develop, produce, and extend the life of new plays,” the NNPN is a vital force helping working playwrights find audiences across the country. Their flagship program to that end is the Rolling World Premiere, which they describe as, “shifting the new play paradigm of the one-and-done premiere to a diversified, traveling, multi-production premiere. The RWP program models a process for developing and producing new plays—one that results in a stronger work overall and the momentum needed for a play to join the repertoire of frequently produced new American works.”

Audrey Cefaly’s Alabaster, the newest RWP to come to Austin courtesy of Shrewd Productions (running through March 7th at the Dougherty Arts Center) is certainly riding high on that momentum. The show has broken the record of the number of cities in which an RWP is produced, with Austin serving as just one of eleven cities in which the play will “premiere” over the next year.

Alabaster centers around two women, June and Alice, the former of whom we immediately learn is terribly physically scarred from some kind of accident. Alice is a photographer who has come to visit June on her Alabama farm, in order to take her picture as part of a larger project to showcase the inner beauty of women with external scars. As the story progresses, though, we learn that the more important scars are the ones inside both women, and Cefaly focuses on the way their deepening relationship helps them to overcome their trauma by sharing it.

Such a setup can’t help but draw certain comparisons with The Bridges of Madison County, and Cefaly directly draws attention to that with the characters themselves commenting on it. Plot-wise, though, this also means that this is not the most original of creations, and much of the story development feels a bit rote. Fortunately, Cefaly’s capacity for witty dialogue and realistic-yet-revelatory monologues, along with a few narrative twists (such as June’s own artistry) and comedic flourishes (a talking goat who comments on the story as it unfurls, and with whom June is able to speak), raises the script above the level of its somewhat clichéd plot.

The secret to the success of Shrewd’s production of Alabaster is the quartet of actresses assembled by director Rudy Ramirez. As the talking goat, Weezy, Jennifer Jennings is sharp, hilarious, and ultimately perhaps the most human character in the show, while Jennie Underwood as Weezy’s dying mother, Bib, wrings true pathos out of what could otherwise be a rather one-note character. Shannon Grounds, as Alice, is a quiet, steady presence full of warmth, showing just enough glimpses into the great trauma in her own past to make her connection with June believable.

However, it is Liz Beckham, as June, who steals the show. Equal parts hilarious and heartbreaking, Beckham manages to be both tough-as-nails and extremely fragile at the same time, throwing off jokes as easily as she does desperately dark revelations about the extent of her internal wounds. While all four actresses are excellent, Beckham provides an extraordinary performance that elevates the whole production.

Shrewd Production’s mounting of Alabaster definitely shows why the play has broken the RWP record—it is an accessible story, speaking to universal truths, that just so happens to feature a viciously funny talking goat. Most importantly, though, it provides a vehicle for talented actresses across America to show their full range of talent, just as this cast has done, and speaks to the power of women to help each other overcome trauma in a country that sometimes seem more dedicated than ever to creating that trauma.

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