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Thursday, September 20, 2012

Review: Crystal Fox shines in the Alliance's "What I Learned in Paris"

LOOKING BACK AT AN ATLANTA LOOKING AHEAD: Danny Johnson and Crystal Fox play characters finding their way in a changing city. Although the first act of the Alliance Theatres What I Learned in Paris is a bit stiff, Foxs star turn as Evie Madison lights up the second half.
  • Greg Mooney
  • LOOKING BACK AT AN ATLANTA LOOKING AHEAD: Danny Johnson and Crystal Fox play characters finding their way in a changing city. Although the first act of the Alliance Theatre's "What I Learned in Paris" is a bit stiff, Fox's star turn as Evie Madison lights up the second half.
Where were we in 1973? Atlantans who are curious to contemplate the state of their city in the volatile early '70s, as a rapidly changing Atlanta elected its first African-American mayor and looked ahead to an exciting but uncertain future, should begin their consideration with Pearl Cleage's world premiere play What I Learned in Paris, now on stage at the Alliance and recently extended through October 6. Although the first act is a bit clunky, the second act sizzles with the electrifying energy of Crystal Fox's performance as the play's central character Evie Madison.

The play opens on the night Maynard Jackson is elected, and though Jackson himself never enters, we're introduced to a group of characters whose lives will be profoundly changed by his election. At a midtown condo that's acted as district headquarters, a few campaign workers gather to celebrate and look ahead, to anticipate and fret about what the future might hold. There's an uncertainty that's at once exhilarating and terrifying for these characters who will soon have the brightest of spotlights shined on every aspect of their now very public lives.

Unfortunately, there's a bit of stiffness in the first act that takes a while to wear off. The characters are campaign workers who must project a clean-cut public image (indeed the disparity between truth and image is a major plot point) but things become somehow too ploddingly talky, ceremonious, and expository to capture our fascination. There are far too many comings and goings: someone's always rushing in or out, though it's only a five-character play. It's a long first act: long on talk and busyness, short on emotion and real action.

Crystal Fox's character Evie, the ex-wife of high-ranking campaign official J.P. Madison, doesn't enter until the first act is well underway, but it's with her arrival that the show finally starts to loosen up and develop some sparks. The proceedings finally become truly compelling, exuberantly so, in the second act.

FOXY LADY:Crystal Fox as Evie Madison
Evie is a free-spirited seeker who has been living in California, but she's rushed home to join in the celebration and to take part in the excitement of ushering in a new era in Atlanta. Evie is one of those powerful characters that almost seems to leap out of the play she's in: Fox is a delight to watch. Many of the same thematic questions that are ploddingly articulated in the first half are beautifully and more subtly posed in the second. It's partially Fox's performance which brings so much life to the show, but clearly Cleage herself was on fire when writing the character: Evie ends up with the best lines, the most wonderful monologues, the best entrances and exits. Her husband says she "changes the air in the room." He says it as an accusation, out of frustration at Evie's unannounced and difficult arrival, but it ends up being a central truth about the character and the play. The first act pretty much flatlines, so you would never guess that during the second act you'll encounter the play's beautiful beating, living heart, but there it is.

Set designer Brian Sidney Bembridge and costume designer Lex Liang have done an excellent job of evoking the '70s era without wallowing in the decade's famous stylistic excesses or dragging out familiar cliches: the set is based on real townhomes in Midtown, and the costumes are partially based on archival photos of Jackson's campaign. It's '70s Atlanta realness.

The play ends with Evie's sweet and hopeful suggestion that a lot of the animosity and suspicion that have plagued the city might be fixable with a chat over a round of mimosas. It's a combination of dreamy idealism and localized, practical realism. Who knows? Perhaps all that our brash, power-broking, hard-working, fractured city needs is some more champagne. Although the show is problematically uneven, in the end, it's charming, funny Evie Madison who makes us believe such a thing is possible.

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