Two women named Alice live half a lifetime together quietly, carefully. In a spontaneous moment in a supermarket, they share a kiss, and their lives are changed—but they’re still who they were, and have been.
The supermarket kiss is the catalyst for Amy Conroy’s I Heart Alice Heart I, a new Irish play, which has just opened at the Irish Arts Center after three successful runs in Dublin. Clare Barrett plays Alice Slattery, and Conroy (who also directed) portrays Alice Kinsella, a sixty-something couple whose PDA is spied by an actor, who asks to interview them, and make a piece of theatre about them.
As the audience, we’re part of the show: the two Alices come on, quite nervous, then warm up to us. They pass around a photo of themselves as girls and offer the hospitality of cake. (Alice Slattery: “I love cake, any cake.”) They tell us their story; the embarrassing bits, unpleasant stuff, and the fun, exciting parts. Referring to a “map” of the piece’s structure on the wall, they show us their vacation photos and a religious statue. They demonstrate how they drive together (switching seats when they realize the driver’s side in America is on the left).
“The more mundane the better,” their unseen catalyst has told them, and they stitch together the fabric of their daily lives in a way that’s both specifically detailed and universal. Except, for them, it’s the most revolutionary thing either has done. To say who they are, and what they mean to each other, is a decision that took a lifetime to make. When they were working, it’s the sort of thing that could have lost them their jobs, and they needed their jobs. (Homosexuality was not decriminalized in Ireland until 1993; it was, as their countryman Mr. Wilde found out a century before, “the love that dare not speak its name.”)
“With every person I meet, I have to decide, ‘will I remain invisible or will I tell them?’” says Alice Slattery. “How do I tell them? Do I need to tell them? I’m embarrassed to admit that I’ve lied about us regularly over the years. It’s a horrible guilt, denying the person you love, denying the life you’ve built together.”
And it’s a good life: the two are devoted to each other, love to travel, and have the kind of understanding that comes with a long-term relationship. They itemize the things they like about each other, that they put up with (like an awful painting that Alice Kinsella brought back from London that she insists on talking to), and the basic differences that will never be bridged (Alice Slattery goes to Mass every Sunday, Alice Kinsella will have nothing to do with it).
Barrett and Conroy make us believe they are these two partners, whose goal is to be with each other for as long as they live. As Alice Slattery, Barrett is the more nervous at the beginning, her hand and her eye twitching with shyness; the performance is a detailed study of a woman with quiet strength (Barrett won the Best Actress award at the show’s initial run in the Dublin Fringe). She’s tough and focused, with a sense of morality that sometimes has her at war with herself over the right thing to say or to believe. As Alice Kinsella, Conroy is the adventurous one, the risk-taker, who leaves Ireland for a time. In Swinging London of the ‘60s, she emerges as a woman who loves women (and allegedly shares a kiss with Dusty Springfield in Ealing).
Barrett and Conroy rely on and trust each other completely onstage, and there’s not a false move in the script or their onstage work. You never catch one of them checking out while the other has a monologue (in fact, their reactions, and listening to each other are a lesson in what living on stage is about). And their Irish accents never slipped.
I Heart Alice Heart I
At the Irish Arts Center, 553 W. 51st St.
Through March 17.
Wed-Sat at 8pm, Sat at 2pm, Sun at 3pm.
Tickets: $27 general admission, available at irishartscenter.org or at 866/811-4111