Although Georgia O'Keeffe is best-known for her oversized paintings of flowers, her 30-year relationship with photographer Alfred Stieglitz was more prickly than flowery.
Their marriage -- thorns and all -- forms the plot of "Stieglitz Loves O'Keeffe," which opened last night at the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre.
Thematically, Lanie Robertson's two-person play focuses on issues even more complex than its characters' contentious union. It seeks to illuminate the nature of creativity and of love, as well as the connection between them.
"If you had to make a choice -- give up me or your ability to paint, I hope you'd give me up," Stieglitz says to his wife in the second act.
"It's the same," she insists.
Refreshing as this debate may be, Robertson -- best known for "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill" -- couches it in a less-than-fresh format.
The play begins in 1946, on the day of Stieglitz's death. O'Keeffe, played by Margot Kidder in the artist's trademark black-and-white garb, makes her entrance dragging a huge, shrouded crate that turns out to be her husband's empty coffin, which she plans to "redecorate" before he's buried. At first she doesn't notice that she is sharing the room with his ghost, who, as played by Stacy Keach, gazes at her adoringly.
Stieglitz -- as arrogant here as he was in real life -- has returned to make sure his demise doesn't also lead to the demise of O'Keeffe's creativity. The thrust of the drama consists of his goading her to get back to her easel. In the process, the play flashes back to key moments in the past.
These moments are occasionally marked by long passages of exposition, which work better when he delivers them than when she does. This is because, besides being a pioneering photographer, Stieglitz was a gallery owner and outspoken proponent of modern art. He was known for his tendency to lecture, and Keach proudly displays this trait. In contrast, O'Keeffe was taciturn, and Kidder captures enough of the artist's inner quiet to make her long speeches sound out of place.
Fortunately, most of the flashbacks feature action instead of narration, and under John Tillinger's direction, these are the liveliest scenes. We see, for example, Stieglitz and O'Keeffe's first meeting (which was more of a confrontation); one of the many photo sessions in which she posed for him; her outraged denial of one of the first critical assessments identifying sexual imagery in her work; and, after a prolonged dry spell, her leaving him to seek solitude, and eventually inspiration, in New Mexico.
Keach and Kidder negotiate their roles adequately. But at this point, following recent script changes and only one other brief engagement, they still seem to be finding their way. Their characters' passion -- hate as well as love -- doesn't yet seem to have reached full intensity.
The O'Keeffe Foundation denied reproduction rights to the artist's work, so set designer James Noone has created pictures in her style. In Act Two, when slides of these are projected next to slides of Stieglitz's actual photos with similar subject matter, the extent of the couple's symbiosis is breathtakingly clear -- even more so than in the script.
"Stieglitz Loves O'Keeffe" was originally billed here as "Flowers and Photos." As is evident from this show, that title was too simple and sentimental to describe a relationship that was productive, stimulating and intense, but hardly a greeting-card romance.
AT THE MECHANIC
What: "Stieglitz Loves O'Keeffe"
Where: Morris A. Mechanic Theatre, Hopkins Plaza
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays; matinees at 2 p.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays. Audio-described performances at 2 p.m. April 1 and 8 p.m. April 4; sign-interpreted performances at 8 p.m. April 5 and 2 p.m. April 8; through April 16
Call: (410) 625-1407; TDD: (410) 625-1407