“Alice Ashes” Touching, Emotionally Involving
By Contributing Writer Nick Orvis
“Alice Ashes,” the play written and directed by Daniel O’Sullivan ’11 that opened in the ’92 Theater on Oct. 15, is a show about aging, loneliness, betrayal, and the often-bitter lives people lead. Needless to say, it’s not the most cheerful of pieces, although it has a few lighter moments, as well as a glimpse of hope at the very end. As a work in progress, it shows a lot of promise, although it has some flaws in its current form.
One of the play’s consistent problems is a lack of clarity, which gives the play an almost absurdist quality. Although this could be in part a reflection on the faultiness of Alice’s memory, there are times when it seems accidental, as when an old mannequin that Alice (here deftly played by Geri Rosenberg ’12) has moved into her living room falls over. That moment itself seemed to be given great attention: we watched the mannequin fall, the lights changed, and a few notes pulsed from the sound system. But the actual significance, symbolic or literal, of the fall was unclear to me both at the time and now. Alice seems about to explain it later, when she tells her friend Robert (Julian Silver ’12) that the mannequin is a relic from her childhood, but she stops herself short when she starts to explain exactly what it reminds her of. It doesn’t appear noticeably in any of the several flashback scenes either, so the nature of the mannequin remains a perpetual puzzle. The nature of some of the double casting in the show also sometimes confused me; for example, Amanda Goldstone ’12 played both Alice’s mother and her sister, which led to some confusion, particularly later in the play.
These more general weaknesses aside, much of the design, particularly the lighting design of Sam Long ’12, was excellent. I focus on the lighting design because much of the show, including costumes by Rosa Seidelman ’10, props by Arion Blas ’11, and a set by Sara Kass-Gergi ’12, were simple and realistic in their conception, which seemed entirely appropriate. The lighting served to bridge the gap between this solidly real world and that of Alice’s, and sometimes others’, memories, and thus took on a much more heightened, fantastic nature.
The strongest point of “Alice Ashes” may have been its performances. Lionel Nyange ’12 particularly caught my eye, as a performer of several smaller roles that he distinguished with tact and verve, consistently coming off as genuine and unique. Max Slater ’11 as the Young Man was also phenomenal, balancing pain, anger, and a perverse sort of joie de vivre. The strength of the actors in fact began to create what is perhaps the greatest problem with the play: one began to lose sight of what the play was about. The main character, of course, is Alice, but focus sometimes seems to shift away from her almost to the point of exclusion.
Silver’s performance as Robert, an abusive “friend” of Alice’s, was particularly powerful. Were Robert simply the last in a long string of male abusers in Alice’s life, this would be acceptable, but Robert as written and performed here was a little too fleshy and complex to be accepted as a mere plot device. In one disturbing and question-raising flashback, we watch Robert’s first abuse of a woman, at his high school prom. “Rob,” played by Michael Steves `13, seems far too simple and innocent to be raping a girl (Jesse Friedman `12); this perception of “Rob” is highlighted by the presence of elderly Robert, looking back on his past (literally, from a pool of cool light on the side of the stage) with something like disgust. I kept hoping that we would see more of Robert and find out what made him the monster he is when we meet him. The questions raised by Robert’s history are characteristic of the show’s frustrating tendency to give the audience a glimpse of something fascinating, but then never develop the narrative thread.
Although it’s hard to admit that having such strongly written and performed characters might have distracted the audience, it is evidence of O’Sullivan’s strength as a playwright. The characters populating the world of “Alice Ashes” are not in any way boring or dull; nor is O’Sullivan’s show a weak play. For all its smaller problems, the play remains an intimate portrait of an elderly woman, approaching death and seeking something that has evaded her all her life. Whether she finds it or not is ultimately unknown, but the ending of the play seems hopeful. I see a lot of hope for “Alice Ashes,” too; it’s a touching, emotionally involved play, and could become a truly great one.