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Take the damn thing,” barks Megan Cole’s formidable Georgia O’Keeffe as the lights come up on her stiff, frowning figure at the Kreeger Theater.
She’s barking at her unseen husband, Alfred Stieglitz, andas was evidently his wonthe’s ignoring her, waiting for her to drop her guard for a few seconds so his camera can peer past her crusty façade and get a glimpse of the woman behind it.
The audience spends much of The Faraway Nearby, John Murrell’s portrait of the last four, post-Stieglitz decades of O’Keeffe’s life, waiting for precisely the same thing. And when on the stage O’Keeffe does momentarily lower the maskluxuriating, say, in the gentle touch of a young man’s fingers slipping stockings off her 86-year-old legs, or smiling broadly as her long gray mane gets treated to a cactus shampooshe can briefly seem appealing and down-to-earth.
Most of the time, though, Cole’s spirited O’Keeffe is spouting cranky, self-consciously spartan phrases that sound as if they’ve been crafted by a poet, not a painter. “The human face is always more mask than meaning,” is a pretty typical example. She says that to the offstage Stieglitz, then peers at the audience and notes as a sort of afterthought that he never photographs her face again.
Good for him, you’ll find yourself thinking. But that turns out to be a bit hasty. The play’s O’Keeffe is certainly a pill when she’s alone, as she is for the entire first act of this longish evening. But being a pill can be a good thing dramatically, and when the playwright finally gives her someone to push against, which he does after intermission, things pick up.
That someone is 26-year-old potter Juan Hamilton (a genial Carlos Sanz), who was O’Keeffe’s assistant and closest companion from 1973 until her death in 1986. He’s pictured by Murrell as a pleasant, patient sort, easygoing enough to let the legendary painter ride roughshod over him, but tenacious enough to win her respect when that ride is over.
Their relationship grows by fits and starts from the moment he steps into her light as she’s squinting at a canvas one afternoon. Pablo Casals is sawing away at his cello on the stereo”giving Sebastian Bach one helluva rubdown,” as O’Keeffe puts itand Juan somehow intuits what needs to be said about that. “D-minor,” he murmurs. “A good key. It always makes me think about the twilight.”
A few more cryptic sentences and she’s hooked. Twilight…the color red that she’s never been able to capture in oils…going to “the faraway,” which is what she calls the horizon…and finding “the dark place,” which is…oh, you get the idea. Juan seems to know all about those things. And since O’Keeffe is mostly blind, lonelier than she’ll ever let on, and in need of a little help around the place (though she’d never dream of actually asking for it), he ends up staying.
So, for a time, O’Keeffe gets to be a little less lonely. She will, toward the very end of her life, slip none too quietly into senility, where she’ll be alone once more, and for reasons known only to Murrell, we’ll follow her there in Act 3. Something about coming full circle, no doubt. But this center section of the play, when O’Keeffe is making human contact rather than waxing iconic, is the meat of the evening.
Act 2 is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a full meal. But it provides a decently involving middle for an evening that is so slight overall that it’s hard to fault director Roberta Levitow and her designers for overdecorating it. Scenarist Ming Cho Lee has provided a painted vista comprising enough different oranges and scarlets to make O’Keeffe’s complaints about the elusiveness of the color red entirely understandable. The staging could do without the tricky platforms, though, and also without the huge screens that resemble O’Keeffe’s paintings but say nothing about their creator or her surroundings. This is one of those times when audience imagination ought really to be allowed to roam free, rather than being hemmed in by paint and canvas. Less would be more.
That’s something one could also say of the script, which feels like a one-act that’s been supplemented fore and aft with monologues for no other reason than that the author had a lot of piquant observations he couldn’t justify the characters’ actually saying to each other. Once Juan arrives on the scene, it becomes clear that the 50-minute first act could be reduced to a quick voice-over indicating that O’Keeffe spent a long time alone and eventually decided she was lonely.
We don’t really need to hear that she mixes the ingredients in her huevos rancheros just long enough to let “the flavors become acquaintances but not friends.” Cole’s reading makes the line tart and amusing, but she’s ventured into one-woman-show territory so hallowedremember Emily Dickinson’s recipes in The Belle of Amherst?that the playwright might as well be engaged in portrait-painting-by-numbers. CP