Be Still romanticizes the hard-working women of the mid-twentieth century, the war brides who raised bunches of children, baked glorious meals, washed, ironed and managed to stay sane and keep their marriages together. Little locates his play specifically in the small southern Missouri town of Alton (where he grew up, and where he collected interviews from which he wrote the play), but the main characters are easily recognizable: the career-driven contemporary city woman and the hard-working small-town mother/grandmother. Amy Brixey plays both roles, beginning as Jean, a modern "superwoman" who has broken down under the stress of a miscarriage and a failed marriage. She and her young daughter have returned to her hometown (Alton), where she has taken on the task of cleaning her recently deceased grandmother's house. The play moves back and forth in time, from Jean's anxiety-ridden rants about motherhood and marriage to past vignettes of her grandmother, Liz, who matures from giggly teen to exhausted mother to wise elder, and beyond.
Brixey transitions well between present-day Jean and past-generation Liz, expertly miming conversations and creating imaginary people and props, but I kept wishing Little had provided another actor to play various parts in the Grandmother Liz stories. It's hard for the audience to keep track of so many invisible characters. Concentrating on the precise detail of Brixey's pantomimed actions distracts from the characters and story. I remember, for example, that she quite perfectly mimed the rolling out of pie-crust dough, but I've forgotten what she was talking about (or to whom she was speaking) while she did it.
The most compelling part of the play is when Jean goes to the nursing home to visit her Alzheimer-riddled grandmother. The scene opens with Brixey as an aunt, speaking to Grandmother Liz in a loud, slow voice, as if she were a child. Brixey becomes Jean, who initiates a conversation with her grandma and then suddenly stops. In a marvelous moment of discovery, she realizes that her grandmother isn't understanding her at all, and doesn't even recognize her. She opens her mouth and begins speaking in a loud, slow voice, talking to her grandmother in the same patronizing way we heard in the opening of the scene. Heartbreaking, and real.
Most of Jean's other speeches are overwritten and overly dramatic, a case of telling instead of showing. Little also seems to assume we're interested in details about Jean's family, such as a list of all their names and nicknames. In the final moments of the play, Jean seems to make some significant choices about her life, but what she chooses -- and why -- remains confusing. We're left with a nice closing visual image (Jean spinning around happily as the lights go down), but I'm not really sure how she got there.
Part of the mission of Echo Theatre is to tell "stories that have rarely been heard or have been forgotten in our community." It's an admirable goal, which is partially achieved in this production. Some of the stories bring back memories and evoke a forgotten time before microwaves and birth-control options, but the play is ultimately not unique enough in either story or style to engage us completely. Still, the Soulard Theatre Collective has succeeded in opening a comfortable, conveniently located new theater space, with lots of potential for the future.
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