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Stieglitz and O'Keeffe's union made art, and now a play

THE BALTIMORE SUN

They couldn't have been more different. He was a talker who loved to surround himself with people and the hustle and bustle of the big city. She was a country girl who yearned for the solitude of wide open spaces. Their first conversation was an argument.

Yet the 1924 marriage of photography pioneer Alfred Stieglitz and painter Georgia O'Keeffe lasted more than two decades and was one of the most creative unions in the annals of modern art.

That fiery marriage is the subject of "Stieglitz Loves O'Keeffe: Flowers and Photos," a play starring Stacy Keach and Margot Kidder that begins a three-week run at the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre Tuesday. It will open in New York later this year.

The two-person drama is by Lanie Robertson, whose most widely produced script, "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill," set attendance records at Center Stage in 1993. Robertson has written several plays about people in the arts, but before he began researching O'Keeffe and Stieglitz, he admits, "I knew very little about her and I knew practically nothing about him."

His interest was piqued a few years after O'Keeffe's death in 1986, when he came across a volume of Stieglitz's early photographs of the artist in the New York Public Library. "I found the photographs extremely moving," Robertson said recently from Winston-Salem, N.C., where this production debuted.

"It seemed to me that Georgia O'Keeffe was not simply photographed as an object or as a subject usually is, but that she was indicating and emanating an attitude of collaboration with the photographer," he continues.

"Because of what seemed to be transpiring between the subject of the photograph and the photographer, I wanted to try to discover who they were."

The discovery he made is described by the play's director, John Tillinger, as "an attraction of opposites." But it was also "a powerful attraction," the director stresses, "a bolt of lightning, where two people see each other across the room and it's woo! It's true passion."

As might be expected from opposite temperaments, it was a contentious relationship. Both were unfaithful, and they spent much time apart -- he in New York, she on the New Mexico ranch where she painted many of her famed flowers, animal skeletons and landscapes.

"When they were together, they couldn't wait to be apart, and when they were apart, they couldn't wait to be together. Sounds like most marriages to me," says Tillinger, a British-trained director with numerous Broadway and off-Broadway credits.

Yet the O'Keeffe-Stieglitz union had "an unusual symbiotic" quality, the director explains. "That's very unique and rare in the art world. For the most part, there's competitiveness between two people, between most artists. There wasn't between them." Instead, the artist and photographer nurtured, supported and even inspired each other's work. Initially, this took the form of Stieglitz -- who ran one of the most influential modern art galleries in New York -- exhibiting O'Keeffe's pictures, and of O'Keeffe posing for him.

Both of these events are re-created in "Stieglitz Loves O'Keeffe," which flashes back from Stieglitz's death and includes scenes of a sexually charged photographic session, as well as that first argument, when O'Keeffe lambasted Stieglitz for displaying her drawings without her permission.

As their relationship grew, their "interdependence [was] reflected in the fact that she painted many paintings based on his photographs, and it's possible . . . he may also have photographed many things that she painted," Robertson says.

Despite long periods of separation, when Stieglitz -- who was 23 years older than O'Keeffe -- died in 1946, his widow "felt his death and his loss very deeply," Tillinger says. "She didn't paint for three or four years after he died. So the play is about that kind of painter's block."

Robertson, who lives in New York, read everything he could find about the couple, interviewing people who knew them and studying correspondence in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University.

But, "a play is not history, and it's not meant to be," says Robertson, who has also written biographical plays about Billie Holiday, Maria Callas, Ethel Waters, Hank Williams and playwright Joe Orton.

"I always try, in the historical plays, to ground them in the character of the person involved and the events in the life," he continues, "and zero in on the events that are most symbolic or meaningful to what people are going through generally in our society."

In terms of staging, Tillinger says he tried to avoid making it strictly a biographical piece, "because then it becomes a documentary and not a play." This is particularly evident in the casting of Stacy Keach, who is tall, though Stieglitz was short. "You try to go for the truth of the human being rather than what they look like," Tillinger explains.

Keach and Kidder aren't the first performers to play these roles. "Stieglitz Loves O'Keeffe" premiered in 1988 at the GeVa Theatre in Rochester, N.Y. It has since had several other regional theater productions across the country. Ben Gazzara and Gena Rowlands were originally announced as the stars of this first commercial production, but he was sidelined by surgery and she by a movie commitment.

The playwright, however, is pleased with the qualities the new stars bring to their characters. "Margot Kidder is remarkably like O'Keeffe. I think she has a straightforwardness and certainly on stage she has a stillness and a toughness that is true to O'Keeffe. Off stage, she's not still at all," he says.

And, aside from the physical difference, Robertson says, "What [Keach] has created is very, very close to what my imagination of Mr. Stieglitz is or was." Furthermore, he continues, "He's brought an energy and sexual tension that are wonderful for the role."

Casting isn't the only change this production has undergone. Although the Mechanic originally announced the play as "Flowers and Photos," Robertson says that was a working title chosen by the producers without his approval. The new title, "Stieglitz Loves O'Keeffe," is a slight variation on the one used in the regional productions -- "Alfred Stieglitz Loves O'Keeffe."

Another unexpected development came from the Georgia O'Keeffe Foundation, which keeps a tight rein on the artist's paintings and drawings, and which refused reproduction rights. "They said that they get about 12 requests a year to use the paintings in dramatic works, and they deny every one of them," says co-producer Robert Franz.

Instead, "Stieglitz Loves O'Keeffe" is using paintings created for the show by an artist working in O'Keeffe's style. The production also includes slides of Stieglitz's photographs from the Art Institute of Chicago.

Robertson conquered another of the play's potential obstacles long ago. Unlike the loquacious Stieglitz, O'Keeffe was more comfortable expressing herself in art than words. In the 1976 collection of her work published by Viking, she wrote: "The meaning of a word -- to me -- is not as exact as the meaning of a color."

Yet the playwright insists he had no trouble finding words for O'Keeffe. "She was speaking from her art, and I speak from mine," he says. "I think that she's absolutely right that she was a non-verbal person. Shapes and colors express herself. I express myself through the theater."

To sum up what he is expressing in "Stieglitz and O'Keeffe," Robertson borrows a phrase from a writer Stieglitz greatly admired. "There was one image that stayed in my mind in writing this play, and that was a line from D. H. Lawrence's 'Women in Love.' He describes the ideal relationship as being one of 'star equilibrium.' He said each individual in the ideal relationship should exert equal amounts of attraction and repulsion, like two stars each moving in its own orbit, and that neither one overwhelms or subdues the other.

"It seemed to me in reading about O'Keeffe and Stieglitz that for the 30 years they were associated -- they met in 1916, he died in 1946 -- for those 30 years they had pretty successfully established a star equilibrium."

ON STAGE

What: "Stieglitz Loves O'Keeffe"

Where: Morris A. Mechanic Theatre, Hopkins Plaza

When: March 28-April 16; 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays, with matinees at 2 p.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays, and 3 p.m. Sundays

Tickets: $17.50-$42.50

Call: (410) 625-1400; TDD: (410) 625-1407

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