For anyone suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder: after you turn off your light box, head to West Philadelphia. I can think of no better cure for the winter blues than I Heart Alice Heart I, the tender, lovely, and quietly substantial two-hander that is now receiving its local premiere from Curio Theatre Company.
OK—I am in no way qualified to give medical advice. But I know a thing or two about theater, and it took mere minutes for me to realize that Amy Conroy’s gentle exploration of one couple’s decades-long love for each other is the first must-see comedy of 2020.
How we find ourselves
But I Heart Alice Heart I—which is codirected with warmth and wit by Gay Carducci and Rachel Gluck—contains more than a few funny jokes. Conroy sets out to tell a story of how people find themselves and grow comfortable with their identities, and she does so by centering a pair of older women whose lives, together and separately, subtly encompass the progression of gay visibility.
Alice Slattery (Aetna Gallagher) and Alice Kinsella (Trice Baldwin-Browns) have known each other since they were children; by the time we meet them, on the set of a documentary being made about their lives, they’ve been romantic partners for nearly 30 years. (Paul Kuhn, Curio’s resident scenic wizard, expertly turns the performance space at Baltimore Avenue’s Calvary Center into a green-screened soundstage.) A stolen kiss in the aisle of a sleepy supermarket set in motion their late-in-life brush with fame—the right person just happened to be watching.
Lives apart and together
Over the course of an hour and change, the audience learns how the women’s lives converged and diverged. Alice Slattery stayed in Dublin and married; buoyed by dreams of a journalism career, Alice Kinsella made her way to swinging-sixties London, where she allegedly made out with Dusty Springfield. (Her partner now doesn’t much like the blue-eyed soul singer, for obvious reasons.) Widowhood and a return home eventually brought them together, though not without some struggles along the way. Conroy’s script explores issues of adultery, illness, and sexual compatibility with refreshing frankness.
She also imbues Alice and Alice’s relationship with a perfectly calibrated sense of the mundane. Each woman vocalizes the traits she’d like to change in her lover, while acknowledging the futility of trying to change someone else’s habits. There’s bickering and apologizing, short fuses and bone-deep affection. There are warm stories about vacations to Key West—where Alice Kinsella swears they saw lesbian icon Kelly McGillis—and sad stories about friends lost along the way. You sense that the unseen producer character must have been on to something when she decided to put this pair front and center—they’re frighteningly good company.
Tears and chuckles
In the more-than-capable hands of Gallagher and Baldwin-Browns, I’d have happily listened to them talk forever. Each woman brings a pitch-perfect energy to her character that brings out the subdued shades of character in Conroy’s writing. As the more conservative member of the couple, Gallagher communicates Alice Slattery’s continued connection to Catholicism and slower path to self-discovery with a sense of wryness. Brice-Baldwins turns Alice Kinsella into a comic spark plug, an outsized personality who lives life on her own terms, but who still has a wellspring of deep tenderness at her core. Together they exude an unforced, authentic kinship.
I Heart Alice Heart I debuted at the Dublin Fringe Festival, and it bears the familiar marks of intimate fringy theater. It’s very colloquial and outwardly small-scale—on its face, it’s just a rich portrait of two lives. But Conroy sneakily embeds a serious message of growth and discovery into her light comedy that is just as likely to jerk a tear as it is to bring out a chuckle.
Alice and Alice are proud of their love. But coming from a generation when same-sex relationships were often lived in secret, they approach the idea of being front and center with a touch of caution. When compiling a pros-and-cons list to determine whether they’ll appear in the documentary, one entry ends up in both columns: “We will be seen.”
Over the course of the play, the thought of being seen changes from a scary prospect to an imperative. We all want to see ourselves represented. After meeting with the producer, Alice Slattery verbalizes the revelation that sealed the deal: “At the end of our lunch, I felt important. Like our story mattered.” It does.
What, When, Where
I Heart Alice Heart I. By Amy Conroy. Directed by Gay Carducci and Rachel Gluck. Curio Theatre Company. Through February 29, 2020, at the Calvary Center for Culture and Community, 4740 Baltimore Ave., Philadelphia. (215) 921-8243 or curiotheatre.org.
The Calvary Center is an ADA-compliant venue. Accessible seating is available at every performance.