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The Pink Unicorn is having an encore run at The Cell in Chelsea from August 13 to 25.
The Tony winner stars in a site-specific solo show about a conservative woman's moral awakening
Alice Ripley can't remember the last time she was on stage and didn't sing.
"Oh my gosh… I want to say Wild Animals You Should Know?" guesses the 55-year-old actress, who's best known for starring in Broadway musicals, notably her Tony-winning turn in Next to Normal.
If her memory is right, then it's been nearly eight years since she appeared in a play. And let's hope everything is all right with her memory, because it's being put to the test in The Pink Unicorn, a one-woman show featuring Ripley as Trisha Lee, a Christian widow living in a conservative Texas town who does some serious soul-searching when her 14-year-old daughter comes out as genderqueer.
Written and originally performed by Elise Forier Edie, The Pink Unicorn has been reconceived as a site-specific production. In an intimate room at The Episcopal Actors' Guild of America, Ripley performs on an altar with no breaks, no costars and no singing.
"She's an incredible singer, but I was like, I want to see her tackle a play -- and a play that's all hers," says Out of the Box Theatrics producer Liz Flemming, who first thought of Ripley for this project after seeing her perform several pages of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in a solo cabaret show. "The church is at the forefront of a lot of the issues surrounding the LGBTQ community, and I wanted to shake things up a little bit. [The church] is always saying, 'All are welcome here.' But are all really welcome? To have this woman kind of say, 'This was my home base, and now... How do I find that again in the church?' I felt like the play belonged there." When Flemming stumbled on the building with its 'The church of the transfiguration' sign out front, she knew it would be the perfect venue for a play about transformation.
When Flemming brought her the script, Ripley immediately signed on.
"I knew right away that it was one of those things that I couldn't say no to," Ripley says. "It tackles something that needs to be said in such a huge way. People need to hear this. We're living in, I think, a crisis-filled world right now, where there's not a lot of acceptance going on. People need to hear a conservative woman change, how she starts off one way and ends up another. I think it's important for people to see that, whether you are conservative or not, whether you are gay, straight, blue, pink, whatever."
Even though Ripley doesn't sing in the piece, she discovered her musical background came in handy as she tackled Trisha's Texas lilt and quirky regional aphorisms ("And I was just madder than a polecat in a coop full of rubber chickens").
"My dialect coach says it's like riding a horse," Ripley says. "You go up and down, up and down. I think dialects are fascinating. They're like music to me. And she invited me to sing the words, because there's a tune to the text."
While she's flying solo on stage, Ripley says the audience serves as her scene partner as Trisha takes them on her heartening journey from intolerance to enlightenment. "Even though it's a one-person show, there's never just one person making it happen," she says. "The audience is the other half of this. I want them to feel like they have been wrung out, but it feels good. All along the way Trisha keeps surprising you, and she keeps doing what you hope she's going to do. But all of the time she's admitting the mistakes that she's made, so the audience can see themselves in that, and maybe understand that we're all in this together."
At such a polarized time, that's an important takeaway. Like The Cake, which recently ran at Manhattan Theatre Club, The Pink Unicorn treats its conservative protagonist with kindness and compassion, not contempt as she grapples with her evolving mores.
"The older I get, I swear, it's like I just want to be willing to just stay open," Ripley says. And being open is exactly what Ripley and Flemming hope to instill in audiences. "[People think that] nobody wants to see a one-woman show surrounding an LGBTQ topic -- and immersive," says Flemming. "But they'll want to see this one."
J. Keith van Straaten is the host of the celebrity trivia podcast Go Fact Yourself, a content producer on the TV game show Funny You Should Ask and a senior writer on NPR's Ask Me Another. Follow him at @J_Keith. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.
Top image: Alice Ripley in The Pink Unicorn. Photo by Jazelle Artistry.