Pioneering artist Georgia O’Keeffe’s life spanned nearly a century. The mid-Westerner’s best-known paintings accomplished the feat of merging abstract and real images in conjuring the images of such inanimate objects as flowers, rocks, and animal bones, in addition to landscapes. After bringing her distinctly American style to Europe, she eventually settled in New Mexico later in her long life. It is at his point in her life that we meet O’Keeffe in Retrospective. This work was created as part of the InGenius workshop series at the Manhattan Theatre Source in the Village. Joan Tewkesbury, the beautiful mind behind the Robert Altman film Nashville, has written and directed this look at the personal gains and losses incurred by an artist.
Tandy Cronyn plays O’Keeffe, who spends much of the play talking to the ghost of her late husband, photographer Alfred Stieglitz (Sam Tsoutsouvas), as she labors on an essay to write for the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 1978 retrospective on the man. Though these conversations, which often delve into heated arguments, are among the more enjoyable parts of the play, Tewkesbury saddles Cronyn with the unenviable task of carrying Retrospective largely through a series of monologues in which O’Keeffe bemoans what she has seen and done.
Retrospective is perhaps best suited for students of art and art history. Much of the show is reliant on some basic outside knowledge of the painter’s life and her work. A lot of the play centers on recollections and accusations between O’Keeffe and Stieglitz, as they recall various affairs. For the art newcomer, however, this play can feel a little foreign, and even redundant as one tries to make sense of the leads’ marriage using context clues. To add to the confusion, occasional peripheral characters appear and re-appear with no real cause, adding to the disjointed feel of the play.
Cronyn does much to make Retrospective work. She makes every bit of O’Keeffe’s struggles – the woman’s body, sight, and creativity are all failing her – palpable. The entrance of a younger character, Frank (Michael Wolfe), a young potter who courts O’Keeffe despite the fact that he happens to be married, is a smart choice in that it helps break up the play and allows the audience to see a less guarded side of O’Keeffe. Personally, I wish that Tewkesbury had pushed this subplot further; both it and the character of Frank have more potential, and it could have shown further evidence of the artist’s vulnerability.
As the two men who alternate in O’Keefe’s life, both Tsoutsouvas and Wolfe are dynamic presences. I fully believed in Tsoutsouvas’ scenes with Cronyn that the two shared a history, and an intimacy, that she could feel long after his death. The actor also carefully measures Stieglitz’s volatile temper. Wolfe impresses as well, though since he has less to work with, I was left to wonder what the actor could do with a more enhanced role.
Ultimately though, Retrospective is a mixed bag, full of good intentions, excellent actors, and potential. With some further honing, Tewkesbury can make good on its promise.