The Alice Seed

October 29th, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments

I really enjoy this play by Mike Sepesy, as well as the follow-up: The Douglas Tree.  There were things I liked about the production and things that I did not.  Mostly the things I didn’t like revolved around the sneaking suspicion that Mike wasn’t given the resources that his play deserved.  I don’t want to be an ass and make obnoxious suppositions, but I’ll say that I’ve seen two season-level productions at CPT by local playwrights: The Alice Seed and The Stars Fell All Night, (and some others that weren’t billed this way) and I don’t think either was served very well by the production it received.  The directors were either found or acquired last minute, the sets were questionable, and the productions seemed rushed, the choices made were wrong, etc.  I’ve seen other productions at CPT that were of good quality: Boom, Fefu and Her Friends, Our Town, etc, so why, I wonder, not the local playwrights? (Excepting the caveat of Cut to Pieces, which was very well done.)  It may be that the plays may be viewed as extensions of the process by which they come up: little box, big box, production–and resources are allocated lightly in the first two.  If that is the case, then the evolution of resources needs tweaked.  Otherwise, I may have to speculate on some other cause…

Grieving parents struggle in Sepesys The Alice Seed

Grieving parents struggle in Sepesy's The Alice Seed

I saw a reading of Mike’s play at the Cleveland Play House in 2007. That was an interesting process, as they actually used music stands.  This was thankfully not the way that Clyde approached my reading in Little Box; but even with this restricted process Mike’s writing came through.  It came through strongly again in the production I saw.

The Alice Seed is a play about grief.  The play is draining.  It is well-written and hard to watch.  As a playwright who has written texts that involve draining themes and intense interactions between characters, there are things I might tweak in this play, as the confrontations between husband and wife can become circular and border on tiresome–they weren’t, but there were moments when I began to think, “okay, we’ve been through this…”  And I was afraid it might go into tiresome; but Mike is a good writer and his sense of that is acute. As well, life is like that, and this story is a tough one.

This play is a screenplay–or should be.  I would love it as a movie/film.  There are things that it needs that are difficult on stage–that is, resources need to be allocated.  They were not.  This required an active imagination on the part of the audience.  I think most people were in this space, at least the people I heard from, and this is what theater should be: imaginative. This is not a play that requires a natural/realistic set; but having some pieces set that way would have helped.  The putting green Astroturf was a distraction, and it disturbed the scenes that took place in the house.  I would much rather the set have been a house with a pretense toward the woods, than the reverse that it was.

The one scene that went way over the top for me was the doctor scene.  A doctor comes to the middle of the stage and we seen the dire diagnosis directed toward Alice. She has cancer.  The dramatics that were attached to this announcement were excessive and unnecessary.  The doctor was reduced to an evil machine that kept repeating ‘your daughter has cancer’ with ominous echoes provided by two musicians (chorus?) above.  The starkness and lighting cast the doctor character with a villainy that shifted the focus away from the grief and bordered on editorial.  The theatrics, being way over the top, distracted from the course of the play.  The effect was almost comic.  I understand the emphasis: that this was the moment when things went bad for the family.  But it was played with too heavy a hand.

Other theatrical points were wonderful.  The hands of Alice reaching out of the ground, cast as shadows on the upstage wall were great.  I liked the effect of the trees on the set.  The musicians: shout out to Bobby Williams of con-con fame, where impressive and the sound effects they provided were often very well done.  The one caveat here being the voice of Alice and the really unnecessary “see you soon, mommy” comment.  The first scene with the mother, Dolores (Jackie Cummins), in the woods and the atmosphere and “swamp” sounds, was one of the best for me and still is with me as a strong impression.
Mike draws very strong characters and the best, perhaps, is Paul (Michael Andrews-Hinders) whose fierce moral system and sense of himself is amazing: and the ominous scene between Paul and Dolores in the house, after Judah (Mark Mayo) has run off, is drawn in hard relief and edged with deep threat and menace.  Sepesy hit his target hard here.

Mike’s sense of storytelling is equally compelling.  He knows balance.  He knows how to heighten the tension and release it.  He knows how to bring you down into the emotional trauma, and then return you with light-hearted moments.

In her notes on the play, Alison Garrigan (who directed and is herself a fine actress) comments that there are “conjure-wive” tales from Appalachia that serve as cautionary tales.  This has that element certainly, with Dolores dying in the end over a promise she made to get her dear Alice back.  When I talked with Mike after the show, I asked him if that was in the reading at the Play House: Dolores dying.  He said it was, but that she should be pulled under the ground with Alice at the end (which did not happen as there was no drop floor/trap constructed for the production). I forgot about this ending, and I think, while I understand that it does serve that cautionary purpose, a stronger story has Dolores and Judah going forward together.  I think a more haunting ending is that there is no easy way out and the loss must be endured forever.  As I get older I realize there are some things that happen in life, some damages, that cannot be undone and from which one cannot recover: that people can get broken and not be fixable.  That is deeply sad and deeply frightening.  I know if something happened to either of my children, something deep inside me would break forever; so the grief in The Alice Seed rings true. In terms of a horror story, I think this reality–the living–is the one that is truly awful–that is to say, I wish Dolores wouldn’t die; even though that detracts from the “contractual” supernatural event.

I love seeing Sepesy’s plays: he is funny, draws startling characters (is himself an excellent reader and character voice), and has a profound mythic sense when it comes to theater and a strong sense of theatrics in the theater space.  I hope CPT considers The Douglas Tree and provides the resources to make it a truly fine production–and I look forward to Mike’s new filmic work.

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