By John Lyle Belden
“I’m not polite company,” says June, the lone survivor of a tornado that ripped through her family’s farm a few years ago. She was left with countless scars, many of which are on her body.
This has brought a renowned photographer to rural Alabama — famous for celebrity portraits, Alice has taken on a project to feature the scars on various brave women, showing their defiant beauty. But then, she has deep wounds of her own.
Also on the farm is Weezy, a common goat gifted with insight she shares verbally with June, and compassion for her mother Bib, an old nanny-goat without long to live.
This is “Alabaster,” by Audrey Cefaly, the long-awaited drama that re-opens the Russell main stage of the Phoenix Theatre, 705 N. Illinois St. in downtown Indy. Originally part of the 2019-20 season, the play is directed by Jolene Mentink Moffat, with brilliant performances by Maria Argentina Souza (June), Lauren Briggeman (Alice), Joanne Kehoe (Weezy), and Jan Lucas (Bib).
There are many themes at play here — loss, mourning, pain, recovery, holding on, letting go, and facing what comes next. There is also a constant stream of gentle humor, as one would expect when the narrator is a talking goat. Cefaly says in her program note that Weezy is “an instrument of the Divine.” I like to think of it as, “What if Jiminy Cricket were a goat?” Regardless, Kehoe takes on the role with a determined smile, giving the animal’s natural traits a sage quality.
It’s become routine in these reviews to dwell on how completely and comfortably Briggeman embodies her every role, and this is no exception. However, Souza matches her in a skillful portrayal of a character with spiky walls, a soft interior, and a mood that turns on a dime. June, who spends her days painting artworks on broken barn wood, is a soul both standing in the eye of her storm and still caught in its vortex; taking her outside these two states is Weezy’s wish, and becomes Alice’s mission — but is it a directive from her worried brain or her healing heart?
Though Bib only speaks “goat,” Lucas can still communicate so much with a single look, as her character bides her time until her catalyst moment.
To stay a step ahead of pop-culture trivia experts in the audience, there are references to a certain popular book-based movie — which this play is kinda like, but kinda not — but only the goat truly goes meta (in a scene that even involves yoga).
Perhaps we can all use a barnyard animal to talk to. Performances of “Alabaster” run through Oct. 31, see www.phoenixtheatre.org for info and tickets.