New York artist Louise Nevelson is best remembered for sculptures constructed of cast-aside wood, the pieces aligned vertically as if reaching for the sky.
“Occupant,” a play about her life, is similarly made. Materializing from the afterlife to participate in a gallery talk, Nevelson — a regal figure dressed to impress — determinedly shapes her history into a series of life-changing dramas and piercing insights, brushing aside her interviewer’s frequent intimations that she’s embellishing or even wholly inventing her anecdotes.
Her life might be made of mundane, imperfect materials, but she is determined to form them into a forceful work of art.
Edward Albee wrote the play, which may seem surprising until you learn that he and Nevelson were close friends. His tendency to treat reality as a fluid construct — as in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” “A Delicate Balance” or any number of other plays — proves quite suited to his mercurial, trailblazing subject.
The stage is remade into what appears to be a museum gallery with neutral gray walls and a couple of viewing benches. On view is a photo portrait of Nevelson, a scarf wrapped tightly around her head and her eyes dramatically framed in liner and lashes.
The Nevelson who strides into the room is not the 88-year-old at the time of her death but the artist in the vigorous mature years of success that had been a long time coming. Martha Hackett bears a passable resemblance to the sculptor, especially in makeup and a headscarf similar to those in the photo. A colorful kimono lends further drama.
The interviewer, portrayed by James Liebman, attempts a brief, biographical introduction, which Nevelson interrupts, imperiously announcing, “Look, my dear, everybody knows who I am.” Thus begins a sometimes testy back-and-forth. She’s ready to deliver time-honed answers; he’s been studying up and thinks she’s gilding the details.
If she is, perhaps she can be forgiven. Her family fled anti-Jewish violence in Ukraine and settled in Maine, where they were outsiders. Then, as she began to rise in the world, she had to fight past walls of men: a husband from a well-off family who expected her to be a society wife, then an art world where men made the art, ran the galleries and wrote the critiques.
She had to dream herself into being, at great cost. She stands tall, moves regally and leans into the questions being hurled at her. Who is this snorting, contrary interviewer, anyway? A manifestation of all those road-blocking men in her life?
Small, finely wrought details abound in Heather Chesley’s staging. Yet for all the terrific work that the director and her actors deliver, supported by the likes of set designer Stephen Gifford and costume designer Paula Higgins, the presentation proves fairly cerebral and insiderish. It doesn’t help that Nevelson isn’t asked to talk about her art until well into the second half.
Seat squirming is bound to develop, but on the frequent occasions when Nevelson delivers a dictum, it perks you up. To wit: “You’ve got to do it yourself,” she says. “Try to stand up, and if it turns out you can’t stand up straight without crutches, go out and learn how to make crutches.”
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Where: Garry Marshall Theatre, 4252 W. Riverside Drive, Burbank
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays; ends March 4
Info: (818) 955-8101, www.GarryMarshallTheatre.org
Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes