Arts » Theater

Starry Twilight

An illumination of van Gogh's early years is muted, but meaningful.

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Beth Dixon and Simon Kendall's fine portrayals bring - two lonely people to life.
  • Beth Dixon and Simon Kendall's fine portrayals bring two lonely people to life.

We've all seen self-portraits by the tragic genius Vincent van Gogh -- the gaunt and haunted visage, the tortured blue eyes peering out from behind a scraggly red beard. The artist exquisitely captures the pain of the mental demons that eventually drove him to suicide at age 37. But we never see the spirit and spontaneity that fueled many of his most cherished works: the radiant colors of "Sunflowers" or the fevered, swirling brush strokes of "Starry Night."

This is perhaps the greatest gift offered by Nicholas Wright's Vincent in Brixton, now at the Cleveland Play House, a play that imagines what went on between the 20-year-old Dutchman and his English landlady, who was some 30 years his senior. Here we encounter a brash, abrupt, and cringingly naive Vincent working as an apprentice art dealer while exploring his own drawing talents. Viewing van Gogh as an almost goofy, frequently giddy post-adolescent is a revelation that, for all its unexpectedness, still feels absolutely right: Yes, this is truly how he must have been at that age! And even though this production has grander thematic aspirations and features solid performances throughout, the remainder of the evening never quite matches that invigorating portrait of the young Vincent.

Fresh from the Netherlands countryside, callow Vincent comes to London on business and takes a room in the suburban Brixton home of Ursula Loyer, a fiftyish widow with a grown daughter, Eugenie. Like most men that age, Vince is a hormonal time bomb, and he immediately lights his fuse for Eugenie (an elegantly charming Virginia Donohoe). But Eugenie is enamored of another boarder, housepainter Sam Plowman (given a cocky, good-natured spin by Patrick Jones). Van Gogh quickly transfers his attentions to Ursula, a depressive woman whose pain and loneliness obviously resonate with the young man. (He says to her at one point, "You're like a mirror of my unhappiness.") Using Vincent's many letters to his brother Theo as a foundation -- along with a mysterious six-month cessation of all correspondence -- author Wright builds a believable scenario, in which the unlikely couple constructs a sturdy if temporary shelter against the buffetings of the world.

The second act leaps ahead in time and confronts some of van Gogh's other passions, including his Calvinist religious fervor, which occupied him prior to his total immersion in painting. By hopscotching across a three-year period, the playwright covers chronological ground -- including the somewhat gratuitous appearance of Vincent's bossy sister, Anna (Emily Frazier Klingensmith, in a rather broad interpretation) -- at the expense of deeper interpersonal explorations. And while there are frequent laughs, there are also some clunky lines that attempt to summarize themes (such as the cloying and irritatingly repeated "No woman is old who loves and is loved.").

Still, there are major ideas at work here, addressing the roots of personal attraction, artistic inspiration, madness and more. And these strands are woven together with telling impact, thanks to the predominantly young company, some of whom are products of the Play House/Case Western Professional Actor Training Program. In the pivotal role of Vincent, Simon Kendall is charming, boyish and appealingly impudent -- a restless colt truly unable to suppress his momentary longings. Kendall also registers the subtext of van Gogh's not-so-latent mental agitation, which is destined to overwhelm his life and his life's work. In a similar vein, Beth Dixon's Ursula is a fine study, cloaked by her personal misery and hidden within her domestic routines, until she blossoms in the sunshine of Vincent's attentions. The two accurately delineate the tensions that this May-September pairing creates, but fall just short of fashioning a masterpiece. Like one of van Gogh's trial paintings, the performances of Kendall and Dixon include all the elements, but the richness of the undertones and the subtle highlights are slightly muted.

Director Seth Gordon helps bring out the humanity of these characters. However, the pace sometimes slows to a crawl, while other moments seem oddly truncated, as if not enough time were allowed for the mood to fully register. This is especially true at the end of Act One, when Vincent and Ursula finally make contact. The functionally stylish kitchen set by Kent Dorsey is woody and charming, and David Kay Mickelsen's period costumes contribute mightily to conveying the 19th-century ambiance.

We are always drawn to stories that attempt to show how genius is manufactured, even as we realize that it can never be fully understood. Vincent in Brixton provides a glimpse at a formative stage of a flawed man, whose creations have transfixed millions of people and are likely to do so until this world expires. For that, we are most grateful.

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