(Jen Mays and David Fritts in “About Alice,” photo courtesy of KC Actors Theatre)
Three years after the theatrical adaptation of “About Alice” had its off-Broadway premiere and 16 years after the debut of the memoir of the same name, Kansas City native Calvin Trillin has brought his heartfelt love story home.
Trillin’s 2006 memoir served as a sort of extended eulogy for his wife Alice, who died in 2001 of heart failure due to radiation damage after beating cancer decades earlier. Trillin is a skilled writer to the point of being something of a Kansas City institution, having spent years writing about the KC food scene, in addition to his more nationally renowned work as a journalist at storied institutions like Time and The New Yorker. As such, it’s no surprise that his love and admiration for his late wife are intensely apparent in his work, which is at the same time infused with deep, dry humor.
The kind of love story Trillin depicts here is not the type we usually get to see take center stage. We are used to seeing young, mad love portrayed in this medium, or else damaged, damaging love à la “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.” With “About Alice,” Trillin carves out a space in theatre for the sort of (relatively) stable, still totally enveloping, life-shaping long-term love that is the stuff of real dreams. It’s rare to see this kind of decades-long marriage serve as the basis for a dramatic love story and this is the sort of production that will make us wonder why that is.
Still, the theatrical adaptation of the moving memoir might leave audiences wanting in a number of ways. While the show is—as its title attests—ostensibly about Alice, it is very apparent that we only see her through her husband’s eyes. Jen Mays breathes grace and charm into Alice but as a character filtered through her husband’s perspective, she is begging for more agency, more nuance than she gets here, in a way that wouldn’t be an issue in a written memoir.
In the end, this feels less like a full-cast production than it does a one-man show with a peripheral character filling out the scenes. As such, David Fritts does a fine job keeping the audience’s attention through lengthy narratives, and hs devotion to Alice comes through in full. But while the decision to have his character carry a script throughout can be sold as a nod to the fact that the production is adapted from a memoir, it’s clear the device is necessary for line-remembering purposes and gives the whole production the feel of a staged reading.
The technical elements don’t add much in that regard. The set, from Mathew Ellis and Mark A. Exline, is a simple white folded fabric draped in a dynamic curve across the stage. It resembles something between a hospital curtain and the folded pages of a book, both of which fit the show thematically but the end result doesn’t evoke any particular meaning. The time and place of the action, which jumps around throughout, is conveyed through projection of text on that curtain, and Kris Kirkwood’s lighting offers a rotating wheel of colors. It all makes for a pretty, if not entirely inspiring backdrop.
In the end, Trillin’s play, directed here by Gary Heisserer, is an emotionally evocative, if ultimately simplistic depiction of a deeper love story.
“About Alice,” a production of Kansas City Actors Theatre, runs through August 28 at City Stage, on the lower level of Union Station, 30 W Pershing Rd, Kansas City, MO. For more information, visit www.kcactors.org.