New York Times Review of “Edward Albee’s Occupant” . Play presented by the Signature Theater Company at the Peter Norton Space on West 42nd Street thru July 13th.
“This was the first place I came,” Mercedes Ruehl says, looking around the small white pentagonal chapel that Louise Nevelson designed for St. Peter’s Church in Midtown Manhattan...
“It has a kind of teeming silence,” she says. She gets up and walks to the relief on the east wall. “This was the piece that fascinated me.” The Frieze of the Apostles. “They were fishermen, so I see some imagery that relates to that. Boats maybe, and I saw shores — it’s like Manhattan and New Jersey — but maybe the Sea of Galilee.”
...In a few hours she will exchange the jeans and top for more exotic fashions, a brightly colored kimono, a large black hat and two pairs of false eyelashes — sable — to portray this legendary sculptor in the Signature Theater’s production, which runs through July 13.
When asked to step into a part that Mr. Albee had originally envisioned for Anne Bancroft before her illness and death, Ms. Ruehl knew little of Nevelson’s bric-a-brac assemblages. So she read biographies, collected art books, tracked down audio and video tapes, and interviewed friends, like Nevelson’s dealer Arnold Glimcher, and Mr. Albee, of course, who was close to the artist for more than 40 years before she died in 1988 at the age of 88.
When Ms. Ruehl infused Nevelson with too much joy or laughter, Mr. Albee told her to be fierce. There is a moment in the play when the interviewer (Larry Bryggman) asks if it was a good life, and she responds, “Some; parts of it; enough; yes: enough.”
Rain Garden II
Ms. Ruehl remembers walking with Mr. Albee to the opening-night party. “He stopped in the street and said, ‘Remember,’ and he did it for me. ‘Tough. Enough; yeah: enough.’ I saw what he was saying: Don’t have a drop of sentiment in there. Every inch earned. That’s Edward too. He’s saying line up with the two of us.”
...The Louise Nevelson that theatergoers witness onstage is a blend of three different biographies, Ms. Ruehl said. First there is the character’s own story, which in the case of Nevelson is a spirited blur of fact and self-invention.
Then there is the biography imagined by the playwright, who is using the Nevelson character to tell his own story, Ms. Ruehl continued, and finally, there is the actor’s own autobiographical reflection.
“One thing all three of us had, poignantly and deeply, is a theme of mothers and sons,” Ms. Ruehl said.
Mr. Albee painfully bared aspects of the tense relationship with his own adoptive mother before in his 1994 Pulitzer-Prize winning play “Three Tall Women.” Nevelson was burdened with having largely deserted her son in the single-minded pursuit of her art.
She was torn between two creative acts, her sculpture and raising a child, Ms. Ruehl said, and “she was ruthlessly honest about having seriously and permanently injured a life.”
...At one point in the play Nevelson says: “With any luck you turn into whoever you want to be. And with even better luck you become who you should be.” Nevelson did, but it came at a steep price.
“She is someone who’s living at a deep and dangerous level,” Ms. Ruehl said. “I could not have lived her life.”