We cringed with the old man sinking toward the stage in agony. His words grew fainter as the stony-faced teenager looming above tightened the grip on his rheumatic hands. He croaked out weak promises on his honor, by his God—regretting the impotent punches he first threw at this young quarry. As his knees touched the ground, his tormenter released his vice-like fist and left him huddled limply below.
The audience at eta Creative Arts Foundation, in Greater Grand Crossing, wasn’t cowed into silence by the pain visible in the man’s every crumpled joint. It wasn’t silenced by the dead relentlessness readable in each hollow of the boy’s itchingly self-certain face. It was amazed that only one actress stood on stage, exclusively responsible for this high-tension moment—that this scene’s no-nonsense adolescent shared the same, single (female) body with his assailant, all the observing onlookers, and the girl protagonist over whom this showdown occurred.
“The Resurrection of Alice” is a one-woman play written and performed by Perri Gaffney. Played across stages in the titular Alice’s life—from early age to late motherhood—the action unpacks her arranged marriage to a rural South Carolinian economic potentate and longtime benefactor, Mr. Luthern Tucker. Gaffney not only plays a host of variably-aged Alices, from the nebulous 1930s into the civil rights movement, but also all of her tale’s interlocutors, companions, and antagonists.
We accompany Alice as she copes with the psychological trauma of effective prostitution and rape, negotiates the exigencies of three unwanted children, reconnects with her lost lover, and slowly recovers her identity from her senile and abusive husband. Alice is obliged to sacrifice her own romance and unprecedented scholastic triumph on the marriage altar for her family’s honor and survival. Tucker’s aid to Alice and her crushingly impoverished family remains contingent on his pedophilic infatuation with her.
With minimal mise-en-scene (a bench, a mason jar, a book, a leaf of paper) and no attempts at quick-changes or costuming, Resurrection surpasses straight monologue through Gaffney’s sheer expressiveness. A thirteen-year-old Alice—in a believable tone and register for a girl of her age—narrates the confrontation between the fiftyish Tucker and her steely, spin-the-bottle crush Isaac. Her exposition only gives the sparsest details and structure needed for a story. Instead, Gaffney’s emotive precision and highly kinetic acting animate the invoked persons, projecting presences and settings out of recounted memories. Gaffney’s face ages decades within seconds, producing gaunt, sallow depressions on-demand, plowing fields of agonized wrinkles with tractor-like efficacy. She’ll then snap her skin back taut over her cheekbones, and assume the drawn, thin, drum-like stare of a smug, muscled man, coltish and brutal. These swift transitions precipitate the confrontation’s tense interchanges.
Gaffney’s ability to rapidly contort her body and shift across the stage, then return to her exact former position, allows her to ghost the play’s varied personae into existence. Her movements delineate schoolrooms, wedding crowds, the stairs from bedroom to armory. She builds spaces from mere motion and credible characters from body language. Isaac on high can therein menace Tucker on the floor; a compassionate teacher can sit close to her abused understudy and share in her tears; an indignant Alice can believably sight a Winchester between Tucker’s fear-shot eyes. Gaffney’s technique is hardly a stand-in for elaborate staging, yet it confers its own unique devices and advantages. Isaac and Tucker are concisely presented as foils and rival lovers, mentor and mentee become reassuringly intimate—literally one and the same—while Alice’s option of murdering Tucker is elegantly suggested as suicide.
The cast grows as the story progresses; a crush of characters inhabit an increasingly busy stage. Gestural motifs help keep them clear: a mother worries her invisible apron to pieces, the teacher-mentor regularly nudges up her glasses, a hand sits in the hollow of the pregnant Allie’s back. Gaffney’s many thrown voices are only overdone when she feels the need to spoof a crooked, misogynistic preacher, an elderly seductress, or the pickling, froggish Tucker himself. Shifts between characters, journeys between states and cities and their attached cadres blur and run into the final confluence. New, constructive figures join, support, and speak with her. The busyness of the play’s ending reads as the exultant vivification of Alice’s dark, lonely marriage.
Only by preserving her voice, introducing her grown children’s voices, and summoning the voices of friends and siblings, does Alice regain control of the play. Alice constructs a world around her and populates it with those she loves and wishes well, transcending the writ penned for her at an early age with a new, second childhood in later life.
It’s not an easy story to tell. Alice talks in her own distinct voice, but she is asked to compete with so many intervening presences that clamor over her. Clashes between the figures in her life—like Tucker’s humiliation at Isaac’s unsympathetic hands—often relegate her to the background. Alice’s initial tale gets hijacked. Her resurrection is the recovery of her identity, the reimagining of an authentic narrative—ultimately fashioned from foreign threads, but woven into something happily hers.
eta Creative Arts Foundation, 7558 S. South Chicago Ave. Through October 20. Friday-Saturday, 8pm; Sunday, 3pm and 7pm. $30. (773)752-3955. etacreativearts.org