The principal issue in this first presentation by a novice theater company is aptly delivered by Vincent Van Gogh in a letter read by his brother Theo toward the end of the first act of "Vincent," a play written and performed by actor Leonard Nimoy for 150 performances on tour beginning in 1978. "What do you want your artists to be?" he says to a critic who dared to review his work well and with only modestly suppressed intellectual interest. It’s a question we must ask here, as Pittsfield and environs are invited to Barrington Stage Company’s St. Germain Stage on Linden Street in Pittsfield, MA to partake in a new company’s edition of the play.
Nimoy produced, wrote and directed himself in this one-man event (filmed in 1981). For the local production a recently retired attorney named James Briggs has produced, through his new theater company aptly named after one of Van Gogh’s own paintings, designed the set and the sound and plays the title character’s brother and Vincent himself. It is a very ambitious first venture and Briggs is an interesting man on the stage. He bears a curious resemblance to Theo Van Gogh, at least as we see that man in the final moments of the play in the only portrait of him painted by his brother.
So we now have the Starry Night Theater Company (James Briggs) presenting the actor James Briggs in this play. And what do we really have? We have a competent actor with a tenor voice and a compellingly warm smile portraying a man, who was, probably just as charming a fellow, a successful Dutch art dealer who represented many of the best Impressionist painters but who was basically unable to sell a single one of his elder brother’s works. Charm and a certain directness must have been part of what made Theo a success and Briggs doesn’t quite pull all of that off all of the time. He often moves into center stage to directly confront the audience and just as often he seems to move into that star spot with diffidence and an indirect set of quirky movements. This holds him apart from the audience he wishes to engage, both as the character and as the actor.
Dr. Brant Pope, who directed this script for this actor/producer, doesn’t seem to have been able to recreate the intentions of the script. The stage is divided into two rooms, Theo’s apartment and Vincent’s studio. As the actor moves from one voice to another, from Vincent to Theo, the actor would be better placed in the appropriate space, but Briggs moved too often and in too random a pattern to pull this off. Briggs own design has a coat rack with Vincent’s painter-smock hanging on it, but he never uses it (photos of Nimoy show that he has deliberately used it in his earlier version). There are times, of course, when Theo in the wrong room is absolutely right and the two men here have taken advantage of those moments perfectly. But this isn’t the case, most of the time, and that’s too bad. It would aid the performance a great deal.
Theo as a character is just as interesting as Vincent. Moreso, in some ways, as his devotion to his brother is hard to explain until you get to know Theo and his complexities. He is a protector. He protects his wife and his mother and Vincent most of all for Theo understand that a genuine talent is suffering most of the time.
The structure of the play is as awkward as Briggs sometimes appears to be. The first act is long enough, running an unstoppable fifty minutes. The second act is brief, only twenty-nine minutes but much of that time is spent in two slide-shows which keep Briggs out of the picture when he should be showing us something about his character’s reactions to his brothers best works. While I was fully prepared to be emotionally taken with the final seventy days of Vincent’s life, I was instead left a bit cold and weary, except for a vitally important section of the play in which Vincent remarks, "We take a train to reach the city. We take death to reach a star." I was up and attentive at that.
Theo responds to this with a commentary on his own feelings about the death of his artist brother: "There are no words to express the sense of loss, the grief, that I feel. It is a grief without comfort. A grief that I shall carry with me for as long as I live." I was once again dropped into my seat as the observer-audience. Theo’s death followed on the heels of Vincent’s proving that even in this deep-seated need to express himself, his only recourse was to die in his brother’s wake. It is too bad that the grief he felt couldn’t be brought to the surface through Vincent’s artworks. And that is a problem with the play. Theo is as ineffectual here as he was in life as regards the artist his brother believed himself to be.
"What do you want your artists to be?" Nimoy created this play as an alternative to lecturing on the college circuit and it is still a college presentation, not so much a wonderful play. Briggs does his best in the double role, but his best doesn’t have the dynamics to make this a great evening. Instead it is a nice evening, one that never touches the heart even though it engages the mind. Theater that inspires, that tugs at your soul a bit, is what is wanted here and the play, and its performance here never reaches, or even reaches for, that level.
If this company sticks around and produces more work we will be able to gauge the talents of its actor/manager. Right now we can only observe a man at work, trying to answer the principal question of the evening. While that is fascinating, it is not engrossing.
Vincent plays at the St. Germain Stage of Barrington Theater Company at 36 Linden Street in Pittsfield, MA through December 30. For information and tickets contact the Barrington Stage box office at 413-236-8888 or go on line at www.barringtonstageco.org.