A female photographer gets her due in a historical drama
By Joel Benjamin
Alice Austen (1866-1952) was a rarity, a female photographer who recorded the everyday life of Staten Island and New York City from the end of the nineteenth until the middle of the twentieth century. Based in her family’s Richmond county estate, Clear Comfort Farm which dated back to before the American Revolution, Austen quietly—and mostly anonymously—reveled in the details of an ever-urbanizing, impersonal city which she scoured with her photographic equipment a brilliant journalistic and artistic record never duplicated.
Sadly, she ended her life in abject poverty, her accomplishments noted mostly after her death. Robin Rice’s Alice in Black and White tries hard to tell her story in broad, obvious strokes, turning Austen’s long life into a giddy cartoon which later sobers up into wrenching drama as the world caves in on her and her longtime lover and companion, Gertrude Tate (Laura Ellis in a beautifully touching and nuanced performance).
In the opening scene in 1876, a ten year old Alice (Jennifer Thalman Kepler whose performance grows in stature as the play progressed) gushes over her first camera. Simultaneously, in 1951, a scholar, Oliver Jensen (Joseph Hatfield, solid) tries to get into the hidden-from-the-public resources of the Staten Island Historical Society. The Society’s receptionist, Sally Lolly (a strong-willed, but warm-hearted Trina Fischer) refuses to help him and considers him an invader into her fiefdom. (We know she will eventually soften up.)
Somehow, mysteriously, Jensen and Austin communicate across the decades in odd, surreal moments. Whether they actually do meet is left until the very last moments of the play.
Alice’s mother, Elizabeth Austen (Jennifer Thalman Kepler who does much better illuminating two smaller roles later in the play) is Victorian morality personified. Alice’s grandfather, John (Ted Lesley making a fine impression in this and two rather nasty roles as men who aid in Alice’s downfall) encourages her. Meanwhile, in 1951, Oliver cajoles Sally, until, finally, she caves in and shows him a vast trove of Austen’s glass negatives which become the basis of our contemporary admiration of her work.
Rice sketches out the tight, limited social circle of Austen, a group of mostly women (acted by Megan Adair & Ms. Ellis) who serve to show how intellectually and socially isolated Austen was, until she fell in love with Gertrude Tate, her companion through thick and—mostly—thin. Act two takes Alice and Gertrude through the vicissitudes of the Depression. Gertrude, forcibly separated from the aged Alice, died ten years after her beloved companion.
In the tradition of many unheralded artists, Austen’s importance wasn’t acknowledged until late in her life, after living in a poorhouse. Saved by Jensen and the Historical Society, she lived just long enough to know that her work was appreciated.
A touching photo of the actual Alice Austen, aged and dignified, was the last image of the play.
Although awkward and obvious in moments, Rice’s play is an important tribute to a great artist. If Alice in Black and White inspires visits to the Alice Austen House in Staten Island it will have served an important benefit.
Rice’s play covers a number of subjects: the rejection of the contribution of women to the arts; the blind eye of society to its creative geniuses; and how the rush of societal changes often sadly leaves behind the most vulnerable.
Directed by Kathi E.B. Ellis, some of the acting, particularly at the beginning of the play, might have been more earthbound and realistic, but Ellis wisely picked up the tempo and found breathless hope in the face of life’s tragic circumstances.
Christé Lunsford’s scenery and projections were elegant and simple, helped by Lindsay Chamberlin’s historically accurate costumes. Tom Willis’s lighting turned the tiny Theater C into a complex space.
Alice in Black and White (through August 13, 2016)
59 East 59 Street, between Madison and Park Avenues New York, NY
For tickets, call 212-279-4200 or visit www.59E50.org
Running time: 2 hours 5 minutes, including one intermission
Photos: Holly Stone