On the morning of May 28, 1890, Vincent Van Gogh began work on the first of 100 works of art, all of which he would complete in the next 60 days. His output included “Wheat Field with Crows”, “Portrait of Doctor Gachet”, and 68 other oils. Immediately after completing this work, he walked into a field and shot himself in the chest. Two days later, he died.
What are we to make of this? Was Van Gogh murdered by his art? Did he, in those final days, see something so terrible that it compelled him to empty himself of the art inside him, and then to kill himself? Was the contrast between the gorgeous vivid colors illuminating his imagination and the spiritual and financial poverty of his own life too much for him to bear? Or did this amazingly prolific artist (he produced more than 2,000 works, including about 900 paintings, during his 10 years of professional life) finally reach the end his artistic road, and, understanding himself to be empty, decide to get rid of the shell as well?
Playwright Nimoy appoints the person perhaps least qualified to answer these questions, Vincent’s loving but hopelessly bourgeois younger brother Theo (B. Stanley), to put the great artist’s life in context. The conceit of this one-act, one-man play is that Theo, having failed to address Vincent’s friends at his funeral, has now gathered them – us – and wishes to clear the record. He immediately reveals himself to be a deficient narrator – a subtle tactic on Nimoy’s part, and effective, in that it provokes us to think for ourselves. Theo’s solipsistic thesis is that Vincent sought out grief and pain, and devoted himself to his own misery. As evidence Theo cites Vincent’s life, which was full of grief, pain and misery.
It was Vincent’s desire for self-mutilation, Theo posits, and not the plain language of the Gospels which led him to do missionary work among the miners of Belgium, and to share their meager rations, their straw mats, and their other sooty-faced privations. Vincent’s subsequent unrequited love for his widowed cousin Kee was similarly motivated (he loved her grief, Theo explains), as was his highly requited love for Clasina Maria Hoornik, a retired middle-aged prostitute. That Vincent may have loved these women for the same dark and luminous reasons we all love our partners appears to have never occurred to Theo. When Vincent later left Clasina, Theo asserts, it was because Vincent suspected her of returning to prostitution. What Theo doesn’t say is that if she made such a decision, it was doubtlessly in response to Theo’s decision to cut off Vincent’s allowance while he stayed with Clasina.
Nimoy’s text raises, but does not fully explore, two provocative ideas, which makes it more of a sketch than a full-blown oil. The first is that an artist who is dependent on a single patron is at the mercy of that patron, not only in his art but even in his personal life. It is a point which artists hoping for a large government subsidy would do well to consider.
The second idea – also suggested by the iconic role the playwright assumed on television – is expressed in the refrain Vincent Van Gogh repeated frequently during his missionary years: “I am a stranger to this world.” Imagine that our home is not here but some place trillions of miles from here; that we come here on a mission to make this place anew, and ourselves as well; that at some point between conception and birth we put on an environmental suit to enable us to operate in this painful and dangerous place; and upon completion of our mission we drop our environmental suits and return home. This is science fiction, of course, but it is also Van Gogh’s Christian religion, in its most sentimental form. When he painted “Starry Night” with its haloed, too-large moon, its cobalt sky, its mysterious spirals and its ocean of giant stars, was he painting from his vision of the floor of Heaven, to which he longed to return?
This production features a gorgeous array of some of the artist’s most beautiful work displayed against the back wall. It is the play’s best moment, and is almost in and of itself worth the (very reasonable) price of admission.
As Theo Van Gogh, Mr. Stanley has a good voice, which he parks in the “bellow” mode, overwhelming the DC Arts Center’s tiny space. Mr. Stanley has obvious actorly gifts – he manages to give a pretty nuanced portrait of a caregiver who is out of his depths, and his work at the play’s end is genuinely moving – but there are other portions of his performance that show lack of imagination and, perhaps, lack of discipline as well. When he misspeaks a line – it happened two or three times in the show I watched – his whole body stops, making you wonder where the reset button is. Worse, when Theo wishes to disparage something Vincent said, Mr. Stanley has him quote Vincent using a whiny, braying voice, extending his vowels to the breaking point. It is amusing the first time, annoying the second, and nearly intolerable the fifth or sixth time. Later, when Theo wishes to disparage something Paul Gauguin said, Mr. Stanley uses the same voice. Enough!
The cause for this production’s problem is easy enough to detect from the program: the name of the director is the same as the name of the play’s only actor. Flat art of the kind Van Gogh made is inherently a solitary enterprise, but theater is nothing if it is not collaborative. Indeed, the most important single phrase in a theatrical rehearsal is “why don’t we try it this way?” Good theater is an intricate waltz, executed flawlessly, but in this production Mr. Stanley is dancing with himself.
By Leonard Nimoy
Directed by B. Stanley
Produced by Theatre du Jour
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
Running Time: 1:10 with no intermission
When: Thurs through Sun at 7.30 p.m. until March 28.
Where: DC Arts Center . 2438 18th Street NW, Washington, DC
Tickets: $20 ($15 for DCAC members). Call 202.462.7833.