Calvin Trillin, the journalist and humorist, is the author of About Alice, an affectionate and touching portrait of his wife, Alice.
Opening on Sunday in an excellent production at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center, About Alice may appear somewhat at odds with the typical artistic endeavors of Theatre For A New Audience, which usually produces Shakespeare and other classical authors, as well as premieres by contemporary dramatists such as Adrienne Kennedy, Richard Nelson, and Wallace Shawn.
As it so happens, TFANA commissioned Trillin to develop this play from a magazine piece he wrote about his wife.
A two-actor play that runs about 75 minutes, About Alice is a warm, often funny, altogether charming account of two nice, educated, cultured people who meet at a literary cocktail party in Manhattan in 1963, fall in love, marry, have two daughters, and share a productive life and a congenial marriage that ends only with her death in 2001.
Trillin was long associated with The New Yorker, even as he and Alice raised their kids, renovated a brownstone in the West Village, summered in Nova Scotia and, oh yes, eventually were now and again shadowed by illness. In 1976, Alice was diagnosed with lung cancer—she never smoked—but battled it back, and gracefully went on with her life as an educator and social activist. She also wrote well-regarded magazine essays and even an illustrated children’s book, Dear Bruno, about being a cancer survivor.
Perhaps some overly-woke people could dismiss About Alice as being merely a case of upper middle class “white people problems” as a self-identified “marginally goofy” writer is balanced by his sensible wife. But as the play goes along in its low-keyed way, it gradually reveals Alice as a quietly valiant soul who was concerned more with helping everyone around her deal with their various challenges in life rather than dwelling upon her own troubles.
The first mention of Alice’s cancer does not arise until some 30 minutes into the play and the disease does not consume the remainder of the story, just as it did not consume the rest of Alice’s life. In an observation taken from one of Alice’s essays, she says, “For me, the measure of how you hold up in the face of a life-threatening illness is not how much you change, but how much you stay the same. The worst thing that cancer can do is rob you of your identity.”
The story easily skips about in time as it is narrated mostly in an anecdotal fashion by Trillin, augmented with comments by and bantering exchanges with Alice, whose frequent changes in attire (David C. Woolard did her pretty clothes) indicate the changes in chronology.
Leonard Foglia, the director, and designer Riccardo Hernandez provide spare, intimate surroundings for the play that consist of a thrust platform of golden oak backed by softly impressionist projections of mostly urban images. Russell H. Champa’s warm lighting furthers the intimate atmosphere until Alice is last seen within an illuminated pool of memory. Foglia’s blending of these elements is so smooth as to be scarcely noticeable.
This husband and wife, or the author and his muse, or the delightful couple of New Yorkers whose interplay is so naturally acted here, are winningly portrayed by Jeffrey Bean and Carrie Paff. A likeable, avuncular fellow in a blue blazer, Bean lends Trillin a hands-in-his-pockets sort of rumpled affability. A willowy woman with an incandescent smile and a sweet voice, Paff invests Alice with a straightforward personality offset by a silken manner. Bean and Paff convey the sense of people who obviously love spending time with each other, and they are enjoyable company for anyone who cares to meet them.
About Alice opened January 20, 2019, at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center and runs through February 3. Tickets and information: tfana.org