Dallas — Sweet Home, Alabama, celebrated in the Lynyrd Skynyrd hit song is a joyful place to come home to. That little town is way different and way south of Alabaster, a suburbanized small town 20 miles from Birmingham, in the industrialized northern part of the state. Wide-swath tornadoes have hit Alabaster at least three times in the past decade alone.
Alabama playwright Audrey Cefaly sets her new play Alabaster on a fictional derelict farm hit by a tornado in the past, and now occupied by a reclusive folk artist who lost her parents and her little sister to the storm. Kitchen Dog Theater, the third stop in the play’s 11-theater National New Play Network rolling world premiere, does the honors with a first-rate all female cast, directed by Clare Shaffer.
As in Cefaly’s other award-winning plays, including Gulf and Love is a Blue Tick Hound, we meet the main characters in a high-stakes moment, filled with paralyzing self-doubt, worn out physically and emotionally, and pretty much stuck in the mud of old injuries. . (Cefaly’s musical with Matthew M. Nielson, The Last Wide Open, plays at Fort Worth’s Circle Theatre in June.)
June (Kristi Funk Dana) survived the storm, but her body is deeply scarred, and so is her heart. Her sarcastic, Yoda-like goat Weezy (Tina Parker) are on heart-to-heart speaking terms, as we witness in the first act. Parker’s Weezy, outfitted in costume designer Karl Makoutz’ plaid shirt and overalls, introduces herself as a goat, and pauses to ruminate whatever she’s been chewing on while we take in Clare Floyd Devries’ detailed two-level set design, replete with a goat shed stage left, and a farmhouse bedroom with a quilt-covered cast iron bed and primitive paintings of domestic and wild animals nailed to the walls.
As June primps on her bed and checks out the tripod and other camera equipment in the room, Weezy tucks her sick, stumbling old mama goat Bib (Lana K. Hoover) into a straw bed, and observes that a new person has entered this dreary backwoods farm.
Alice (Chase Crossno) comes in, adjusts a lens, smiles, and talks to June the way a sensitive doctor might address a nervous patient. We realize in short order that one, June volunteered to have her scarred body photographed by this high-profile photographer, two, she’s gathered Alice’s entire professional and personal history from the Internet, and three, she’s simultaneously flirting with this stranger and hell-bent on pushing any ray of kindness or hope out the door and off the porch.
Cefaly’s characters engage us quickly, with their naturalistic interactions, made of much movement, body language and minimal talk at the outset. Goats and people talking doesn’t feel the least bit absurd in this easy rhythm. Crossno’s confident, professionally contained Alice makes casual small talk and moves around the room with her camera, focusing tightly on her subject’s shifts of body and facial expression.
Dana’s June quizzes Alice aggressively about the other women she’s photographed in this self-designed series of scarred survivors. June strips to her boxer shorts, turns to reveal the scars on her back, thrusts her chin out, and boasts, “I was valedictorian,” as if to counter Alice’s gazing at her as simply another battered specimen for a “coffee table book.”
Level-headed, but vulnerable Alice responds by asking June about all the bright, vibrant paintings on the walls. June resists such praise: “I’m not for sale,” she shouts. Only gradually does June consider that the noted photographer intent on capturing her body might also see her spirit in the alligators and goats and birds and cats she’s painted on the wooden remnants of the barn wrecked in the tornado.
The play and the relationship between the two women progress swiftly in the tight 90 minutes of the play. Sometimes they just stare silently at each other, or they talk at the same time, or they shout or murmur in discovery. The strangers move from curiosity and suspicion, based on their previous lives, to a kind of owning up to the terror and grief they’ve both experienced in the past, and somehow reach a new level of trust and mutual respect. And so what? The action feels less like a plot, and more like an inevitable consequence of the collision of these two distinct personalities.
Parker’s wry, detached Weezy has an animal’s sixth sense about the outcome of the emotional storm these human critters have blown up between themselves. She’s hilarious sitting on an aisle step, munching messily on arugula as she watches diligent Alice go through her yoga routine near the front porch. This funny, telling scene, in which Alice is suddenly aware she is having a conversation with a goat, is fully found. Who hasn’t heard a knowing pet say, in so many vowels (learn consonants!), “You’ll feel better if we go for a walk.”
Hoover’s Bib doesn’t have Weezy’s conversational skills, but she glows in a seminal scene when her goat daughter embraces her in her dying moments, and we witness the remarkably simple, sublime transition from a body carving a trough in the dirt, to a soul, all light and movement, rising to exit the shed and her mortal skin.
You don’t have to love fried okra and head-butting goats to get a kick out of this charming, revealing play. But it helps to come to the theater hungry for love and a good laugh.