The saying goes that well-behaved women seldom make history. History however doesn’t always take note of those women who, without fanfare, go about their lives, following their passions, and quiet unintentionally changing how things are done. These women enter one world and leave another — one that has been made better by their presence. Such is the story of Elizabeth Alice Austen (played by actor and Looking for Lilith Theater Company Outreach Director Jennifer Thalami Kepler), as told by playwright Robin Rice in Alice In Black and White, now playing at 59E59 Theaters.
Jennifer Thalman Kepler and Laura Ellis
Alice’s passionate love affair with the captured image began when she was a child of eleven, and as she grew bigger, so did her ambitions as a photographer. What did not appear, much to her family’s chagrin, was a passion for potential suitors. Despite being considered quite a catch and pursued by men with famous last names that inspire awe even today, Alice was impressed by neither their charms nor their fortunes. In fact, after seeing one friend after another get married, have babies and lose their vital spark, Alice decided that all she needed to be happy was her camera, some film slides and a bicycle.
Enter Gertrude Tate, played here by Laura Ellis who also plays Alice’s childhood friend Julia. Where men failed to measure up, Gertrude excelled. She and Alice spent the next several decades together trying to scrape by after Black Thursday stripped them of their wealth and they were left with little other than the Austens’ Staten Island home, which had been in the family long enough to claim George Washington as a guest.
Trina Fischer and Joseph Hatfield
Rice reveals Austen’s history one piece at a time, separating the years with another story — one writer’s search in 1951 for the negatives rumored to be buried somewhere in the Historical Society Museum basement. With dogged persistence, the writer, Oliver (Joseph Hatfield), pursues the negatives — and also, possibly with manipulative intent, the docent/would-be assistant curator (Trina Fischer).
This secondary storyline is an odd fit for the play, the sadly single lovelorn docent, Sally, a foil for the self-fulfilled and steadfast Alice. Sally has her own strengths, but she clearly wishes for another life — exactly the kind of life that Alice eschewed. Whether the writer, Oliver, sees that and takes advantage of it or is genuine in his initial flirtations is unclear. The effect he has on Sally is not.
Jennifer Thalman Kepler and Laura Ellis
More characters exist within the main body of the play than there is room for actors, so by necessity every performer other than Kepler takes on multiple roles. It works fine for some, like Shannon Wooley Allison, whose characters require vastly different costumes as well as strikingly different temperaments. In the case of actor Ted Lesley, who portrays both Austen’s grandfather and a suitor within the same timeframe, the transition was more muddled and complicated. The change of a cardigan to a suit jacket and cap wasn’t quite enough to mark the change on sight, and it took a few exchanges to un-muddle the situation.
Actor Megan Adair stood out as Violet, another of Alice’s friends. As predicted, Violet’s marriage has made her like a flower wilted on its stem, tired, worn and deeply unhappy. Adair captured the look of a woman desperate to maintain the appearance of tranquility while a storm secretly raged inside.
Shannon Woolley Allison
There is little in the way of stage setting for reasons that become obvious when seated in the small theater, but director Kathi E.B. Ellis and Scenic Designer Christé Lunsford found a wonderful work-around, projecting Austen’s actual photographs onto the rear wall, the “scenery” changing with every scene and allowing the actors to interact with them. It’s both a smart use of space and a remarkable way to see Austen’s photographs themselves, large as life if not bigger.
Alice in Black and White works well as commentary on the evolution of women’s rights in America, from Victorian times through the 1950s. It also makes a moving point about the women of Austen’s generation, who were brought up being told they were worth only what their wombs could produce and then found themselves equal victims of the Great Depression, unable to work either for lack of skills or an ingrained belief that it wasn’t seemly for a woman.
Austen’s life’s work came to be recognized only as her life was coming to its end, leaving her without knowledge of how valuable she was to both photography and historic preservation. It’s wonderful, then, that a group like Looking for Lilith could bring Austen’s story to a wider audience, and that they found a place to tell her story.
Photos by Holly Stone
Opening: L-R: Jennifer Thalman Kepler and Laura Ellis
Alice in Black and White
59 East 59th Street
Playing through August 14, 2016