Dallas — WingSpan Theatre Company celebrates its 20th season with the area premiere of Occupant by Edward Albee. This is one of his later plays, finished in 2001 but not staged until 2008 at the Signature Theatre Company in New York. In keeping with his commitment to crafting strong, intelligent and resourceful female characters, Albee pays tribute to his friend and respected American sculptor, Louise Nevelson (1899-1988).
WingSpan has enjoyed its collaboration with the Dallas Museum of Art (DMA); the Sept. 29 edition of DMA blog Uncrated highlights this staging, and the museum’s painted wood piece by the artist, “Diminishing Reflections VIII (Left & Right),” 1964. The Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth has 21 Nevelson pieces of which one is a wall assemblage, “Lunar Landscape.”
Louise Nevelson was known for her sculptural assemblages. Working during a time when most sculptors informed by abstract expressionism were attracted to other materials and welding metal, Nevelson chose wood. Why?
For her, the assemblages resulted from using what she understood, and what she could access. By the time she was 31, she had changed her name to Louise, married at 21 for money, birthed a son (Myron) and divorced her husband without asking for financial support. There was simply no money for art materials, but she did have an understanding of wood because her father had managed a lumberyard. Finding scrap wood and debris in Manhattan was not a problem. It was accessible, and free. Figuring out what to do with those found objects was the problem to be solved and that eventually became the space she occupied as an artist.
In a Q&A with TheaterJones, director Susan Sargeant described Louis Nevelson as being within “the mold of Albee’s strong and complicated women,” primarily because she was a survivor. She and Albee had each struggled to find a space for their type of artistic expressions. Each understood they would have to invent themselves. As Louise says in the play “I knew what I wanted. I just didn’t know what it was.”
In Occupant, the ghost of Louise Nevelson (Constance Gold Parry) has agreed to sit for an interview with The Man (David Benn). Nevelson is colorful; the Man, prepared. There is almost an intimacy between them—a familiarity that comes from having researched a subject so thoroughly that the interviewer knows the subject better than she knows herself. Nevelson is coy, flexible about dates, and given to what the interviewer describes as “misrememberings.” He is nimble but undeterred in his goal of nailing her down on some of her squishier retellings. Not to embarrass her, rather to discern what was real from what she wanted everyone to believe. At one point he asks, “Do facts mean anything to you?”
The repartee between Parry and Benn is fun to watch. They are in a sort of pas-de-deux in which one of the dancers has not decided whether the other one should be onstage. Parry brings spirit and crispness with her as she nestles in her chair, draped in textile lusciousness and batting double sets of sable eyelashes. She has found the cadence of Nevelson’s speech. David Benn manages to bring personality to a character that was afforded little. He is delightfully witty and alacritous.
Nevelson developed a style that is readily identifiable as having a relationship with the abstract expressionism without remaining true to it absolutely. Her large, monochromatic wall sculptures demanded accommodation in spaces typically dominated by paintings. For most of her life she struggled for recognition, selling very little. Art critics mostly ignored her work, heaping the bulk of their attention on male artists of the day such as David Smith and Alexander Calder. By the time she began to experience success in her 60s, the field of contemporaries had expanded to include young 20-something artists Mark Rothko, Frank Stella, Robert Rauschenberg, and Ellsworth Kelly. It was a tough environment for a woman.
Parry is careful with Nevelson’s most stinging reflections such as her fight for attention in the male-dominated arena of sculpture. She emphasizes, without rancor.
Parry and Benn are seated in two chairs surrounded by a set filled with impressive sculptural pieces designed by Nick Brethauer. Under Jason Foster’s lighting the pieces are transformed from white to black to gold, matching Nevelson’s scheme for her assemblages. Parry draws focus in part because of Barbara Cox’s costume design. The kimono and scarf are beautiful, sparkling under the lights. Lowell Sargeant has been thoughtful with the soundtrack, tacitly matching period and feel.
Three years before she died, Nevelson accepted the National Medal of Arts from President Reagan. As the last person to speak during Nevelson’s memorial service, Albee shared a little insight into their friendship. He told a story about using a tape recorder while interviewing her as prep for an upcoming article. She had agreed. Later, after he returned home, he realized at some point during their conversation, Nevelson had managed to turn the recorder off. Perhaps Occupant was his way of finishing that interview.