There is one very important fact about Louise Nevelson—she gives one heck of an interview. That she’s dead is just a quibble, because death has not blunted her sardonic wit or defenses. Or, most importantly, her passion for art. She takes us through her life, holding little back, determined to tell her truth, and steamrolling over her interviewer. Of course, being dead is sort of the ultimate advantage for that.
‘Occupant’ is a moving meditation on what it means to be many things—a woman, a Jew, a Russian, then an American, a wife, a mother, a daughter, a joy, a disappointment, a lover—and all bound up in the overarching identity of artist.
Underneath all the drama and reflection and deflection, the common thread is that an artist who happens to be a woman has a much tougher row to hoe than a man.
As this play by Edward Albee shows, even in death, women’s choices and looks are policed and judged, and Nevelson is challenged in ways one wonders if a male artist would have been.
The setup is such that we are in a lecture hall listening and watching an interview between The Man and Louise Nevelson, who has returned from the dead for this occasion. How she received the invitation or came back is never explained, nor does it need to be. Maybe she’s a little bit lonely too in the wherever, or maybe it’s a chance to see and touch and be one with her work again.
The interviewer, Jonathan David Martin as The Man, spends most of his time attempting to put in chronological and numerical order the facts of Nevelson’s life—the raw data, as it were. Here is a chance to meet an iconic sculptor and groundbreaking artist, and he keeps trying to pin her down as to her exact age and where she was standing and what was she wearing, etc., when such and such happened.
But, oh, Susan Rome as the indefatigable Louise Nevelson won’t be boxed in. She cuts the ground out from under him, then takes pity on his frustration, then switches topics. He insists on an intermission to get himself back together. Watching Martin start out trying to control the interview, and then simply give up and try to keep up with Rome’s kaleidoscope of a portrayal of a deeply passionate, contradictory, and immensely talented human being is thoroughly enjoyable.
The elegant stage, presided over by a towering screen portrait of Louise Nevelson, was designed by Nephelie Andonyadis, who also designed the costumes (Rome’s outfit was reminiscent of the ensemble’s costumes in the theaters first production of the 2019-2020 season, ‘Love Sick’). Aaron Posner directed, and one senses he set the scene, laid out the parameters, and got out of Rome’s way as she channeled Nevelson.
Toward the end of the show, Nevelson is rewarded, by The Man, with finally getting to see her art again; it is a transcendent moment as she walks upstage and just stands for a moment facing the huge wooden sculptures. Then she turns and faces the audience and takes her place in the middle of them—it’s a powerful image of an artist reclaiming her place.
“Occupant” is a moving meditation on what it means to be many things—a woman, a Jew, a Russian, then an American, a wife, a mother, a daughter, a joy, a disappointment, a lover—and all bound up in the overarching identity of Artist. Frankly, as enjoyable as it is watching The Man’s discomfiture, he’s almost unnecessary—this is Nevelson’s story and she dominates.
Running Time: One hour and 50 minutes with a 15-minute intermission.
“Occupant” runs through December 8, 2019, at Theater J at Edlavitch DCJCC, Washington, DC. For more information, please click here.