Florida Weekly Review: ALABASTER is “tender, heartbreaking, yet humorous”

Florida Weekly Review: ALABASTER is “tender, heartbreaking, yet humorous”

Florida Rep’s ‘Alabaster’ moving, engaging, quirky in the best way
January 01, 2020

No one gets through this life unscathed.

We all endure bumps and bruises and acquire scars, seen and unseen.

We all experience loss.

“Alabaster,” by Audrey Cefaly, shows how two women deal with the scars of life and begin to heal through the power of art and love.

And oh yeah, there’s a talking goat.

Weezy (Carolyn Messina) opens the play, speaking directly to the audience. Dressed in a Bob Marley T-shirt, jeans and construction boots (costumes by Charlene Gross), she’s sassy and argumentative, both providing commentary on the action and taking part in it.

We immediately know we’re in a different world, one the playwright’s described as a realm of its own, a mixture of Tennessee Williams and “Lord or the Rings” or “Star Wars.”

Playing at the ArtStage Studio at Florida Repertory Theatre, this production is the first of an 11-theater rolling world premiere, breaking the previous record of seven theaters. (“Alabaster” was read at Florida Rep’s PlayLab Festival in 2018 and directed by Jason Parrish, who also directed this production.)

It’s easy to see why theaters from Oregon to Illinois to Texas are all lining up to stage this new play: it’s moving, it’s engaging, it’s quirky in the best way. With her writing, Ms. Cefaly rips your heart out of your chest, shatters it, then mends it. She’s not afraid to give voice to our hidden fears and flaws.

While the subject matter is serious, “Alabaster” is also unexpectedly warm and funny, as idiosyncratic as a human. Or a talking goat.

Weezy lives on a farm in Alabaster, Ala., with her elderly mother, Bib (Sara Morsey), and June (Rachel Burttram), a human.

June lost her family — both parents and younger sister — in a tornado that destroyed their barn and ripped off the front porch. The incident has left June scarred, literally and figuratively.

Weezy is her comfort animal, but is also her conscience, devil’s advocate and mentor. She also acts as June’s scapegoat, absorbing her pain.

Ms. Messina is incredible — and totally credible — as a smartass tomboy goat who’s also capable of great moments of tenderness. She made me laugh during an unusual goat yoga scene.

And while Weezy speaks in English and goat, her mother, Bib, speaks only in goat. Despite this, Ms. Morsey elevates the role, making Bib a fully realized character you can’t take your eyes off of. A scene where she has a moment of transformation is truly revelatory and joyous.

June is scarred from the tornado; Alice (Dana Brooke), a well-known New York photographer, arrives to take photos of her as part of her project of photographing scarred women. Alice is matter-of-fact but hiding scars of her own. Like every artist, she is trying to answer her own questions and heal her own pain by examining it through art. It’s as if looking through a lens at others’ scars will help her deal with her own.

The two bicker and banter and flirt and push. Ms. Brooke and Ms. Burttram play off of each other very well.

Ms. Burttram is especially stunning in her role, playful one moment, vulnerable the next. Her emotional range is breathtaking.

You can’t help but feel for these women and root for them. They recognize the pain in each other, but also the possibilities. We often see ourselves anew when reflected through someone else’s eyes.

Richard Crowell has provided a rustic set that provides both the suggestion and structure of an Alabama farmhouse, and lighting and projection designer Rob Siler helps set the mood and also allows the audience to see images of Alice’s photography and June’s outsider art. He also provides a terrifying tornado. (The art, by the way — playful, colorful images of hens and chickens, cats and goats — is done by Ms. Morsey, who plays Bib.) The incidental music has been exquisitely chosen and includes Gillian Welch and Sam Phillips (the under-recognized singer/songwriter, not the Sun Records producer.)

Mr. Parrish, as director, has done a remarkable job with this play, and is also to be commended for shepherding it and championing it. He’s brought to life this tender, heartbreaking yet humorous story of two women who discover how much bravery it takes to just live.

“How are we still sitting here?” June asks at one point. With all the loss around us, all the deaths, how is it we’re still here?

This is what Florida Rep does best: present new, exciting voices to the stage we haven’t even realized we’ve been longing to hear.


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