The famous artist who has incredible charisma and an outsized ego, a master at his craft while a failure as a human being. That familiar type is the fascinating main character in Irish playwright Thomas Kilroy's play The Shape of Metal, which opened at Dublin's Abbey Theatre in 2003 and is now receiving a belated U.S. premiere at 59E59 Theaters. But in this case, the he is a she. Nell Jeffrey, played with terrific verve by esteemed stage actor Roberta Maxwell, is an ailing 82-year-old sculptor whose work is being put on permanent display in a national museum—and a self-described "bit of a beast" when it comes to "niceties" like people's feelings. The play, directed by Broadway stage veteran Brian Murray, turns on the confrontation that Nell has with her middle-aged daughter Judith, who visits seeking answers about the long-ago disappearance of Grace, her mentally unstable sibling. Grace, who appears only in flashbacks and dream sequences, vanished 30 years earlier after her mother quashed her romance with a mechanic from the nearby village.
The Shape of Metal works as a suspense drama complete with a buried family secret that, when revealed, is both surprising and plausible (no small feat). But what makes the play noteworthy is the richness of its three female characters, particularly the formidable Nell, and the combustible, dueling emotions that fuel their clashes with each other. If the characterizations have a flaw, it is that these women are revealed only through their interactions with each other, making for some gaps.
The quality of acting in The Shape of Metal is outstanding. Julia Gibson endows the levelheaded Judith with both heart and intelligence as she ricochets from frustration and rage to concern and empathy with her mother. Molly Ward brings Grace to life with luminescent power.
But it is Maxwell who steals the spotlight as the hard-charging and acerbic artist. Nell berates new artists for their acceptance of mediocrity and recoils from the slightest sign of failure in herself and others. With shades of Lear, she grandly predicts her impending death while scorning the indignities of aging, including memory loss. In her exchanges with Judith, she is, by turns, self-righteous and pensive. Maxwell brings such zest to the part that she doesn't convincingly convey Nell's physical and mental impairments. Her rapid half-step shuffle, for instance, seems more jig than feebleness.
Murray decided to keep the play's Irish setting, though nothing in the plot demands it in the way that the work of fellow Irish playwrights such as Brian Friel and Conor McPherson does. It's an unfortunate decision since all three actresses, particularly Gibson, slip in and out of convincing Irish accents.
Set designer Lex Liang pulls off the illusion of a massive, garage-like artist's studio on a stage that is diminutive even by Off-Off-Broadway standards. In fact, the entire design team is top-notch, doing work that is in service to the play's needs and never flamboyant.
The Shape of Metal, which refers to Nell's favored material for sculpting, offers grist for reflection on the relationship between art and life, the nature of modernity, and the claims and limits of family. Nell, who spends a lifetime trying to create finished objects, ultimately comes to understand that failure is human, that perfect form is never attainable. The Shape of Metal is a case study for such a life philosophy. Far from perfect, it is yet a work worthy of attention and regard.