Playwright Edward Albee has given us an indelible portrait of his good friend the artist Louise Nevelson in his 2001 play, Edward Albee’s Occupant, now making its delayed New York premier for the Signature Theatre Company. Starring the formidable Mercedes Ruehl, the two character play is a touching celebration of the determination (or is it destiny?) of his friend of many years, who just happened to be one of the most renowned sculptors of the 20th century.
A character study set some 20 years after Nevelson’s death, the play is framed as an interview with the deceased artist, as a ghost. She appears cantankerously alive, however, to articulate her philosophy on becoming who she was meant to be. Her interrogator (Larry Bryggman), known only as man, questions her about her transformation from Leah Berliawksy, a Jewish immigrant, to an iconic figure of postwar American Abstract Expressionism. Since Nevelson has often been described as her own greatest creation, man wants to get to the truth. Even the playwright himself has said “She wasn’t always that creature she presented to the public.”
Here Albee, with apparent admiration for his subject, delves into one of his favorite, themes the ambiguity of memory, as he investigates the complexities of self-invention. Does she slightly misremember or does she lie to disprove the truth? As her own creation, Albee seems to be saying the enigmatic truth lies “in some thin space” between her life and her art. Several times in the evening we hear Nevelson saying “I don’t remember.” Her interviewer asking “Do facts mean anything to you?” Nevelson replies “They can be useful.” And therein lays the rub.
Nevelson was a striking woman given to wearing flowing robes with one of her trademark head scarves and always two sets of long sable eyelashes on each eye. Ruehl, an actress of extraordinary power, provides a riveting take on the complex artist. From the moment she sweeps onto the stage in one of Nevelson’s customary costumes (by Jane Greenwood), she puts a vivid stamp on her interpretation of the larger than life sculptor. With a commanding straight forward style that is alternately playful and imperviously impatient she fields his questions with apparent candor. Her interviewer often states “Interesting if true,” leaving us to speculate on the nature of “truth and illusion.”
Although little more than a slender biological sketch with few sparks and even fewer personal revelations, the evening remains compelling for the message “live fully be yourself.” Louise Nevelson always knew she was different, which is not necessarily a good thing, but her need to prove she was special to the world has become her lasting legacy. Her rise to the top of the art world (in a field dominated by men) was slow, but ultimately lasting. Indeed, near the end of Pam MacKinnon’s simple staging, a scrim drops to reveal a spectacular wall of wood sculptures that literally upstages the entire proceedings, making a ferocious point about the artist’s work as well as her vision. When Nevelson was dying in the hospital, she had the staff remove her name from the door and replaced with the word occupant, hence the play’s unusual title.
Edward Albee’s Occupant opened at The Peter Norton Space, 555 West 42nd Street between 10th and 11th Avenues. Tickets are available at HYPERLINK "http://www.signaturetheatre.org" www.signaturetheatre.org or by phone 212-244-PLAY (7529) or in person at the box office.