From what I have read about her, the Victorian era photographer Alice Austen was a fascinating woman. Unfortunately, as presented in Robin Rice’s disjointed play Alice in Black and White, which opened last night at 59E59 Theaters, she comes off as rather bland and frivolous.
Rice introduces us to Alice as an 11 year old in 1876 living an upper middle class life in the family home, Clear Comfort Farm, on Staten Island with her transcendentalist grandfather (Ted Lesley) and her mother (Shannon Woolley Allison), an angry woman who has been abandoned by her husband, Alice’s father. Jennifer Thalman Kepler (left in photo), under the direction of Kathi E.B. Ellis, bounces around trying unsuccessfully to look and sound like a child. This is the first of many misdirections by Ellis.
It is at this age that Alice develops her interest in photography, an interest that would lead into a life as a bold street photographer, something unheard of for a woman of her time. Rather than focusing on her career — and her love affair with Gertrude Tate (Laura Ellis, right), a woman who would become her life partner — Rice dilutes Alice’s story with secondary plots that keep intruding.
In the one, set in 1951, that most often overtakes Alice’s story, Rice gives us Oliver Jensen (Joseph Hatfield), the historian who searched for her negatives to publish them. This might have worked if it were less obtrusively developed, but Rice blows this plot line into a battle of the sexes as Oliver spars with the prim Historical Society receptionist Sally Lally (Trina Fischer). Their unconvincing story interprets Alice’s repeatedly.
The play won the StageWrite Women's Theatre Initiative Award and received its world premiere in Louisville, produced by Looking for Lilith Theatre Company, which revived its production for the occasion of the 150th anniversary of Alice's birth. I’m sorry to say that as staged at 59E59, the writing, direction and acting all come off as an amateur production.
Too bad for Austen, who deserves a better presentation. Photography was an exotic enterprise when when she began pursuing it. Her life spanned two centuries — from 1866 to 1952 — and in that time she lived on her terms, capturing more than 8,000 images. Thirty-five hundred of these are known to exist today. They include family portraits and documentary-style shots of workers in New York. She also spent years at quarantine stations photographing immigrants. I got no sense of this depth from Rice’s offering, although scenic designer Christé Lunsford makes nice use of Austen’s photos in projections around the stage.
The most involved I felt in Alice’s life was at the end of the play when she is destitute and disabled, living in a home for the indigent. Kepler speaks no words, but conveys Alice’s humanity in her silent dignity sitting alone in her wheelchair. This is a relief after all the busyness of the production.
At the start of the play Rice has Alice define her life’s purpose. I hope one day this will be better dramatized.
“I’m a preservationist,” she says. “My photographs might find their way to an historical museum some day, but they’re history, not art. That vase was brought from Germany wrapped in this quilt over 100 years ago by Granpa’s sister. The story is what matters, not what the vase could bring at auction. Preserving the past, that’s what matters. Money comes, money goes. A dollar today will be a penny tomorrow, but that vase has intrinsic value. I won’t waste time on stupid stuff.”
Austen’s childhood home on Staten Island has been turned into a museum, the Alice Austen House, devoted to her life and work. I’d like to visit it, then I would like to see Austen’s life done as a one-woman play. Secondary characters could be conveyed by a change in voice, but the story would remain centered on this strong woman who lived against the grain in her choice of career and life partner.