A portrait of the artist with Florida Studio Theatre Stage III’s Occupant.
By Kay Kipling
Fans of famed sculptor Louise Nevelson may find Edward Albee’s Occupant, now onstage in a Florida Studio Theatre Stage III production at the Gompertz Theatre, fascinating in what it reveals about the artist and self-mythologizer. Those with less invested in learning about Nevelson’s life and career will still find it interesting, although perhaps more intermittently so.
Albee knew Nevelson well for years, and fortunately for him, her life gives him a chance to look once more at one of his favorite topics, the line between truth and illusion. In this case, that line is often blurred, as Nevelson apparently made up stories when it suited her in creating the public persona we’re familiar with. (“True, if interesting,” is the frequent aside spoken here.)
That persona is decked out in full regalia in actress Kate Alexander, who sweeps out onto the stage in a coat of many colors worn over back pants, with long beads, hoop earrings and, of course, those trademark false eyelashes standing out starkly from her face. She’s being interviewed (even though she’s dead) by another character called simply The Man (Patrick Noonan), who presses her for answers to many questions about her personal as well as professional life. And since Nevelson lived such a long and eventful life (born in a Russian shtetl in 1899, she died only 20 years ago), there’s a lot of ground to cover: her childhood feeling that she was “special,” which spawned a lifelong determination to discover just how; her unhappy marriage to a New York businessman and her unwilling entry into motherhood; her long and often unrewarded attempts to become an artist, despite periods of depression that sometimes kept her in bed for weeks at a time.
That battle to find “the space you occupy,” as Nevelson puts it, is convincing in Alexander’s portrayal, which is appropriately energetic and driven. Noonan, put in the sometimes thankless role of the interviewer, is seen as equally relentless in his own way in pursuing the truth or some version of it. (“Do facts mean anything to you?” he asks Nevelson in exasperation at one point. “They can be useful on occasion,” she replies.) But his motivation is less clear than Nevelson’s; why does he come on so strong with these questions? Is he a biographer, a scholar, a TV interviewer? (After all, both he and Nevelson interact with the audience, as they would in a TV studio). Why should he push so aggressively, and why would Nevelson allow him to?
Maybe that’s too literal a question to ask here; the important issue is that struggle to become something, which in Nevelson’s case finally occurred once she filled her house up with wood she had picked up off the streets and began to work with it in her own distinctive way. There may be lessons here to be applied to our own lives, but overall Occupant succeeds mostly in showing us Nevelson’s passion and will.
Occupant continues through Jan. 31; call 366-9000 or go to floridastudiotheatre.org for tickets.