As we sat in the small and very intimate room masquerading as a theatre at the Episcopal Actors’ Guild, a space that resembles a tiny town hall more than anything, my companion and I rummaged through the press package trying to get a grasp as to what had brought the legendary and Tony Award winning actress, Alice Ripley (Broadway’s American Psycho) into this universe. Although well versed in some of musical theatre lore, he did not know Ripley’s name. “Is she a “person’?” he asked, which is his way of asking just how well known, well regarded, or famous someone is. I answered, “YES, in a super huge talented kinda Broadway musical theatre way. I mean, she won a Tony for the spectacular Next To Normal, one of my favorite things ever! And she was incredible in Side Show and Sunset Boulevard.” I pointed to the credits, asking him if he had watched the YouTube clip of her that I had sent, and even though he had not, he and I still sat surprised that she was about to perform in this one woman show in a hall full of folding chairs, with a copy machine to our right and a table of cookies in the back, tucked away in the upstairs of a church structure (which makes complete sense once you see the show). There just had to be a connection, I told my friend. “She’s listed as on the Advisor Board of the Out of the Box Theatrics production company”, he said. Maybe that was it, or maybe, just maybe, she really loved what playwright Elise Forier Edie (John Henry) had to say, and found that she needed to make sure everything about The Pink Unicorn was heard loud and clear, by as many people as possible. And her star power might just accomplish that. I know it made me want to show up, regardless of where and why.
Little did we know we could have just asked her (not that I ever would) as she was within ear shot of our babbling the whole time (gasp), and when the lights dimmed, courtesy of technical director Frank Hartley (OOTB’s Songs For A New World), she rose and walked center stage, purse in hand, grabbing hold of our gaze and our attention as simple and honestly as you can hope. “I never got the opportunity to express myself“, Ripley’s character states, talking about her daughter, her mother, her beloved and troubled big brother, and the Church that she called her home. She takes us on an emotional ride that resonates and grippes our heart and our soul, clearly and definitively giving us a solid stare into our eyes via her troubled soul. This is exactly what it means to be a true actor; to have the ability to weave a story, solo and strong, regardless of the size and shape of the site specific space. Utilizing every little natural gesture and pause, “plain as you please“, she rings a captivating tale so true and digs so deep. She’s a Southern Christian mother who, inside her challenged heart, has to find the clarity and the heartfelt wisdom to try to understand and accept a daughter that just announced one day their gender neutrality. “Why do I have to?“, is her first thought after hearing of gender fluidity for the first time. “Look it up, Ma“, and she does, on Wikipedia, which she wholeheartedly shares with us, remarking with pride and fear that “Jo” , the ‘them’ that is her child, has decided not to conform to social norms and structure, and maybe find a way to be “who I really am“.
It’s a twisty tormented tale of fear and confusion told with such clear vision against the cowboy boots and jeans of Paster Dick and the Southern belle mother of Ripley’s conflicted character. “I chose to be timid and afraid” in a manner that is captivating and never lets go, exemplifying the twisted path that she is forced to take, and to what end. The playwright, Elise Forier Edie tailored the hell out of the idea, tearing the concept to pieces and rebuilding it as tight as a legal action from the ACLU. Directed with a subtle edge by Amy E. Jones (Riverside Center’s The Color Purple), the tale feels authentic but needs a sharper eye and a more focused edit to be the powerhouse it sits on the edge of being. Thankfully, in the capable intense hands and gaze of Ripley, the flaws melt away in Southern slang and twang. There, seated in a makeshift chapel of some sort on the honest to God actual Mother’s Day, watching this woman wrestle with her love and confusion over her child, felt just about as perfect a Sunday night as could be. I just hope my over enthusiastic praise to my friend as the show was about to begin didn’t distract Ripley as she patiently waited to begin. I hope she knew that it was all based in adoration and respect. Ripley is a gift, and The Pink Unicorn is the prize that will lead us out of the darkness into the sun of acceptance. “Don’t you agree?”
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