John Murrell's play about Georgia O'Keeffe, "The Faraway Nearby," reinforces how difficult it is to convey, in theatrical terms, the fervor that an artist expresses with paint and canvas.
At Washington's Arena Stage, even the visually arresting set, by acclaimed designer Ming Cho Lee, and the intense lighting, by Allen Lee Hughes, cannot adequately enliven Murrell's script.
Arena's production isn't the first time area theatergoers have had a chance to see a play about O'Keeffe. In 1995, the Mechanic Theatre presented Lanie Robertson's "Stieglitz Loves O'Keeffe," which also suffered from a deficiency of drama (though to a somewhat lesser degree).
Murrell's play is set in a later time period -- after the death of O'Keeffe's photographer husband, Alfred Stieglitz, and during the years she became firmly entrenched in her adored and adopted New Mexico desert retreat. Most of the action concerns O'Keeffe's relationship with Juan Hamilton, an artist nearly 60 years her junior.
Actually, all of the action concerns that relationship, since the rest of director Roberta Levitow's production is relatively static. Divided into three acts, the first is entirely devoted to a monologue delivered by Megan Cole, as O'Keeffe.
Cole's O'Keeffe is proud, noble and vigilantly self-reliant, but her 45-minute monologue feels forced. This is due in part to the excessively precise nature of Cole's vocal delivery. But mostly it is due to the fact that this taciturn artist did not really trust words.
"The meaning of a word -- to me -- is not as exact as the meaning of a color," O'Keeffe wrote in the introduction to Viking's 1976 collection of her work. The idea of her talking to herself at great length doesn't ring true, much less making such obvious comments as: "So quiet in my house, alone at night," or "alone, bedtime, alone."
When Carlos Sanz's Juan Hamilton makes his entrance in the second act, things pick up considerably.
Hamilton, who started out doing odd jobs for O'Keeffe and eventually exerted a great deal of control over her life and work, is presented here as more of an acolyte than an opportunist, and Sanz gives him a highly empathetic as well as naturalistic portrayal.
The play depicts the spiritual attraction between them and even tactfully suggests a hint of physical attraction; at one point they take a dip in their skivvies, after which Hamilton washes O'Keeffe's hair. But there is nothing unseemly about their relationship, except perhaps the way the balance shifts from O'Keeffe's initial dominance to Hamilton's nearly paternalistic concern for the painter when she reached her late nineties.
Speaking of age, according to the program, the play spans almost 40 years.
Yet Cole's O'Keeffe ages so imperceptively, it seems she must have found not only inspiration, but also the fountain of youth in New Mexico.
The play's title is the name of a 1937 O'Keeffe painting of an animal skull in the desert.
The "faraway" is what the painter called the part of the desert featured in so many of her landscapes. But "faraway" also describes the distance between this play and genuinely involving drama. The result is more like a series of sketches than a finished painting.
'The Faraway Nearby'
Where: Arena Stage, 1101 6th St. S.W., Washington
When: 7: 30 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Sundays; 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays; selected matinees at 2: 30 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays and noon Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Through Jan. 24
Pub Date: 12/22/98