Theatre for a New Audience, Polonsky Shakespeare Center
262 Ashland Pl. between Lafayette Ave. & Fulton St.
Tuesday - Sunday through February 3, $90-$115
Calvin Trillin brings to life his inspiring relationship with his wife, Alice Stewart, in the heartfelt, beautifully rendered About Alice, continuing through February 3 at Theatre for a New Audience’s intimate Polonsky Shakespeare Center. The eighty-three-year-old Kansas City–born, New York City–based memoirist and humorist’s first full-length play is a love letter to, well, true love, based on his 2006 book, also called About Alice. The story is told in flashback, as Calvin (Jeffrey Bean) shares details of his life with Alice (Carrie Paff), re-creating important and mundane moments; she also corrects him when necessary and takes playful shots at him. Speaking of their meeting at a party in 1963, she says, “I thought you were very funny. I thought you’d be an interesting person to have to dinner after my boyfriend and I were married. At least, that’s what I told myself . . . You have never again been as funny as you were that night.” He responds, “You mean I peaked in December of 1963?” With a smile, she answers, “I’m afraid so.”
Looking out at the audience, they discuss their careers — his as a journalist, food writer, poet, novelist, and popular talk-show guest, hers as an educator, author, film producer, and muse — as well as their families, their upbringing, and their friends. Their repartee is warm and funny, even as they turn to the cancer that would eventually take her life. But she also understood the seriousness of her plight. “For a long time after I found out that I had cancer, I loved hearing stories about people who had simply decided that they would not be sick,” she says. “The thought that my children might grow up without me was ridiculous. I simply had to be there. Not being there was unacceptable. But I also knew that some unacceptable things happen.”
Their relationship was a love affair for the ages, each of them complementing the other with a natural grace, his wry sense of humor a great match for her bubbly enthusiasm for living. At one point Calvin says they were compared to Burns and Allen, although she was George and he was Gracie. David C. Woolard’s costumes are a key part of who they are; while Calvin wears the same ordinary light shirt, brown pants, and dark sports jacket throughout the seventy-five-minute show, which is charmingly directed by Leonard Foglia (Notes from the Field, Master Class), Alice changes myriad times, sometimes in a magically short time, revealing a keen, elegant fashion sense, even when her fancy dresses are put aside for a hospital robe. Riccardo Hernandez’s set consists of a center table with two chairs and two walls with doors, one leading to the back, the other to Alice’s closet. Bean (The Thanksgiving Play, Bells Are Ringing) is terrific as Calvin, calm and easygoing, his eyes aglow with his deep love for his wife. And Paff (Ideation, Stage Kiss) is luminous as an extraordinary, multifaceted woman with a passion for everything she did; it won’t take long before you fall in love with her too. Alice was often a character in Calvin’s writing, but she becomes so much more in this moving tribute to a lovely human being. We should all be so lucky to find someone so special in our lives, no matter how long we have them for.
(Note: Trillin will participate in postshow TFANA Talks following the 2:00 matinees on February 2 and 3, moderated by Budd Mishkin and Alisa Solomon, respectively. In addition, there are printouts in the lobby of two major articles Alice wrote, one for the New Yorker, the other for the New England Journal of Medicine.)