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BWW Review: Leonard Nimoy's VINCENT Brilliantly Explores Art and Madness at Gamut

Actor Leonard Nimoy is known as many things, but the one which most people pick instantly involves pointed ears and green stage blood, as he's internationally famous as STAR TREK's Mr. Spock, the half-Vulcan science officer of the starship Enterprise. He's lesser known, but equally, or even more highly, regarded as a photographer, and has won critical praise as a writer - no praise more so than for his 1970's one-man show, VINCENT. Gamut Theatre Group Artistic Director Clark Nicholson and departing core company actor David Ramon Zayas have taken this on as part of the Harrisburg Shakespeare Company season, and the result is worth an evening of your time -- especially as every performance is "name your own price" for tickets.

What's not quite as well known in the collection of Nimoy's accomplishments is that Nimoy had heard of and bought the rights to a play titled VAN GOGH, by Phillip Stevens, a play in which Theo Van Gogh, Vincent's brother, goes through his letters from his brother. Agreeing to keep certain of Stevens' original scenes intact, Nimoy reconstructed the play and retitled the new creation, which he performed in 35 cities for over 100 performances before taping it at the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis (available for home viewing, it also resides at the Van Gogh Museum as part of its educational collection).

Only recently has this brilliantly written show been revived by a few ambitious directors and actors, and it is our loss that it has been so long neglected. It's currently playing in various venues around Los Angeles with French actor Jean-Michel Richaud (Mistral Productions director Paul Stein has been directing), and Starry Night Theatre has brought it to Barrington Stage with Williamstown actor Jim Briggs, but has barely been seen otherwise since Nimoy's 1981 taped performance. Director Nicholson is in good company with his decision to put the show back on stage, and it is to be hoped that the LA, Barrington, and Harrisburg productions will convince other directors and actors to take on the challenge of this play, which deserves much greater production.

Vincent Van Gogh is dead. He is known in Paris art circles, but has only sold one painting in his life. His brother, art dealer Theo Van Gogh, too overcome with emotion to speak at his brother's funeral, finally feels able to talk a few days later, going back to his brother's voluminous correspondence to make points about his life and his work. Nimoy went through Van Gogh's over 500 letters preserved by his brother to bring Vincent and his correspondence alive through Theo, who alternately talks to his listeners and races to his desk to find Vincent's letters that illustrate his points.

At HSC, the man channeling Theo Van Gogh is David Zayas, who not only serves as Theo, but as Theo's startling and illuminating impressions of Vincent. The distinction between Theo and Vincent on stage is a difficult one to depict, some actors and directors choosing to downplay it, but the difference in character seems necessary, and Zayas shifts amazingly between the two - the grieving, quiet Theo, and the contentious, combative Vincent, never more alive than when fighting for or with God, art, or his friends and family.

Despite the convenience for an actor that Theo is reading from his brother's letters, this script is still a gargantuan task for an actor forced to monologize for two acts. Zayas, who reveals that he began reading the script in August in preparation for the show, has succeeded in mastering it and in bringing Theo - and through him, Vincent - to life on the Gamut stage. The performance is commendable, and it is a shame for local audiences that Zayas has decided to return to school, which will keep him away from the stage for some time to come, although he promises that his departure is only temporary.

The real tension in this show comes from Theo's passionate defense of his brother's sanity. He waves medical records, quotes doctors, grasps at anything and everything within reach, but Vincent is sane - however, he does have an unfortunate diagnosis of epilepsy that can, that must, explain everything. As director Nicholson points out, the stigma of mental illness in the late 1800s was such that it was crucial for Theo to be able to convince himself, in order to attempt to convince others, that his brother was sane. What we now recognize as a major depressive disorder, with some manic tendencies, was at the time a disease too horrible for any family to admit a member had.

And yet, had someone thrown a prescription for Prozac or Wellbutrin at Van Gogh, and had it worked... would we have his art? Would we have colors and brush strokes that rise off the canvas to touch us, that might never have existed, according to some experts, but for Van Gogh's illness? A point that Nimoy does not seem to have intended, but that now certainly exists, arises from this show: does our modern ability to treat and to control depression and manic depressive disorder with a few daily pills prevent more great art from being created? Mental illness is by no means necessary to creativity, but does the taming of behavior, feeling, and emotion by prescription blunt artistic expression that might otherwise have occurred? And if it does, is the lack of another Vincent Van Gogh or Sylvia Plath worth so many people being prescribed full-time into an even keel? Nimoy's writing of a few decades ago has within it both a major arts debate and the seeds of the issues explored in the recent musical, NEXT TO NORMAL.

A combination of brilliant writing, fine acting, and Clark Nicholson's sensibly light hand in this case with direction, the play also brings in Van Gogh's art as a slideshow background, for the artist's works are as important as his letters in understanding him. When Nimoy put the show together, he had discovered that most museum images of the works were poor, and sought and obtained permission to re-shoot the works himself in order to have better copies. When Gamut received the images that accompany the show, they looked at them and worked further at improving the images digitally. The result is a background screen that illuminates the letters being read and that rivets the audience during the silent moments of the show. The Gamut team rightfully should be proud of this production.

At Gamut/Harrisburg Shakespeare Company through March 17. Call 717-238-4111 or visit for tickets. As mentioned above, all tickets are "name your own price".

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