At the center of “All She Must Possess,” the entertaining play by Susan McCully receiving its world premiere at Rep Stage, is Etta Cone, the unassuming half of the celebrated sisters from Baltimore who amassed an astounding collection of contemporary art at the turn of the 20th century.
But Etta isn’t used to being the center of attention. She’s more comfortable deferring to her older sibling, Claribel, as she always has.
In fanciful fashion, the play summons both women from that great art museum in the sky and time-travels them to our era so that they can participate in the creation of a miniseries about their eventful lives. Etta isn’t exactly thrilled with the prospect of the dramatization; she’s even more unnerved at the idea that she is to be the primary focus of the plot.
“Claribel would make the best protagonist,” says Etta, superbly played by Grace Bauer, who seems to take a preemptive cowering position in anticipation of big sister’s reaction.
Sure enough, Claribel, vividly embodied by Valerie Leonard, enters with Wagnerian imperiousness, ready to disapprove.
Throughout the play, Claribel makes clear her self-importance, at one point admitting she can’t imagine dying — “I shall miss myself terribly.” She’s also something of a threat, ever ready to challenge the narrative.
That narrative is cleverly presented without regard to conventional structure. McCully has attempted a kind of cubist portrait of Etta, shifting the perspective from scene to scene as readily as the chronology. The fourth wall is gleefully broken several times, adding another layer to the disorientation.
Along the way, Matisse (Nigel Reed) pops up to discuss Expressionism, and a painting comes to life to interact with Etta. But the biggest presence here is Gertrude Stein, who is also portrayed by Leonard, underlining the dominating role Claribel and Gertrude played in Etta’s life (the actress moves between the characters deftly, even during a single scene).
Although “All She Must Possess” makes various points about art, that’s almost peripheral. The major matter is Etta’s awakening to desire as she enters Stein’s dazzling orbit, and the toll of being eventually nudged aside by Alice B. Toklas (Teresa Castracane) — Alice B. Tactless, Etta calls her.
The miniseries writer (an effective Keri Eastridge) wants to spotlight this part of Etta’s life, considering it an important chapter of gay history. But the gentle art patron is reluctant to go there; she’s still the private person she was in her day, a time when people didn’t talk openly of such things.
This mix of past and present, fact and conjecture, humor and anachronism doesn’t always hold together tightly. The play, which lasts about 75 minutes, doesn’t feel quite finished, either. At the end, you may find yourself wishing for a little more information, a little more insight.
Still, McCully’s knack for writing vivid dialogue and, above all, her sensitivity to myriad matters of affection and attraction carries the day. The result is a worthy tribute to a woman who immersed herself in art and the process of creating it; a woman who tasted love, but never had her fill of it.
Bauer’s beautifully detailed acting makes Etta a most endearing figure in this well-cast production, directed with considerable nuance by Joseph W. Ritsch.
Daniel Ettinger’s spare set allows for projections designed by Sarah Tundermann to fill in details of art and atmosphere. The lighting by Conor Mulligan helps the play’s different angles come into focus. Julie A. Potter’s elegant period costume designs add the finishing touches to an intriguing journey through art and heart.