BWW Review: A Fine OCCUPANT Takes Residence at the Garry Marshall Theatre
Playwright Edward Albee is a master of fact vs. illusion. Think of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Goat or Who Is Sylvia? or the later The Play About the Baby, where the plot and characters' game playing baffle the audience from beginning to end. The storyline of his much later play Occupant, now onstage in its West Coast premiere at the Garry Marshall Theatre through March 4, concerns a Man (James Liebman) conducting an interview with famous dead sculptress Louise Nevelson (Martha Hackett). This interview cannot possibly be taking place. Nevelson is dead (April 17, 1988). Yet, when you accept the premise - how can you avoid it except by walking out? - within this framework there are perhaps more real facts than in other Albee plays. The point of this real perspective of an artist? Nevelson and Albee had been close friends; he is paying homage to her and her hard-earned success.
Once Nevelson agrees to be interrogated, she opens up about coming to America as a child from a tiny town outside of Kiev, Russia and that she was a Jew. She was born in 1899 as Leah Berliawsky. Hard to fit in, she claims, " so you make everything fit to you". Her father and mother were poor. Through hard work, they eventually bought property in Maine. She married a wealthy New York businessman named Charles Nevelson, but she was never happy. She felt trapped, especially when she became pregnant. She did not want a child but gave birth to a son she named Mike. Her only solace was taking art lessons, singing and dance lessons. This led her to finally leave her husband behind when his business was at the point of collapsing and to go to Europe where she studied with art instructor Hans Hofmann in Berlin and later in New York. Her talent for art blossomed slowly. Interesting to note that Nevelson received decent art reviews for her early work, but was dismissed because she was a woman. Even art was a man's world. It wasn't until much later that she found her breakthrough in wood. She is best known for vertical wood sculpture. The painful ups and downs of her professional and personal life included, at least in in her mind, failure as a wife, a mother and in other areas of artistic endeavor. Wood brought her happiness.
Albee structures Occupant in two acts. The Man and Nevelson accept each other, but there is never a fondness between them...a tolerance of one another, but no tangible amicability. Nevelson reluctantly talks about her breakdowns, her illnesses and her initial hatred of sex. She never loved anyone. "There isn't room for everything." Nevelson believed in Eastern philosophy and in living for oneself. "Be yourself and live for yourself". There are moments of revelation in life that give meaning to the struggle. When she talks about Picasso, cubism and particularly beautiful Japanese robes, it is here that her eyes sparkle and an expression of sheer wonder covers her face. Simple beauty made it all worthwhile. This of course gives universality to the play allowing the viewer the realization that he (she) can find success too, by accepting one's special self, living for every moment and following an unlimited path of growth.
Under Heather Chesley's even direction, Hackett shines in the role of Nevelson. The artist is strong, unrelenting and determined even in her darkest hours, at moments of despair. She goes on. Hackett fills every second with true emotion and spirit. Liebman as The Man fulfills his duty in keeping his interviewee uneasy, ready to strike back and cut loose at a moment's notice. It is the friction between them that keeps the piece moving, triggered by Nevelson's unstoppable drive.
Fame was not important to her. When she was hospitalized with lung cancer, her name was on the door. She removed the plaque and insisted it be replaced with Occupant. She answers the questions "Was the sacrifice worth it? Was your life a success?" with "Some of it. It was enough." Optimistic audience can find more to relate to here.
Praise to Stephen Gifford for his classy set design without projections. Make the audience listen! Paula Higgins has designed a lovely silky pants outfit for Hackett with a stunningly colorful print on both draping cape and head scarf.
Go see Occupant! This is a different Albee but still full of richness and charm. Hackett's performance alone is worth the price of admission.
(photo credit: Chelsea Sutton)