'Vincent in Brixton' at ACT: An incomplete canvas haunts ACT's production

In 2003, the Royal National Theatre's production of "Vincent in Brixton" received the highly coveted Olivier Award for Best New Play. It must not have been a good year on the London stage. Or perhaps the voters that year were great fans of melodrama.

I won't go so far as to say it's a bad play, it just isn't memorable. It doesn't present sufficient character development to explain the supposedly deep psychical and sexual connection between the youthful Vincent van Gogh and his much older landlady. Nor does it illuminate causes for their emotional high-wire act. And the ACT production doesn't make amends for the playwright's limitations.

In 1873, the 19-year-old Vincent was sent by his father to work in the London office of the international art dealer Goupil. The opinionated yet naïve lad found lodging in the home of a middle-aged widow. Playwright Nicholas Wright imagines what might have happened during van Gogh's three-year stay in this Brixton household. Though the play comes from Wright's imagination, it is built around numerous letters that the intelligent though unsophisticated Vincent wrote during that period.

Central to the story is the love affair that develops between Vincent and his landlady Ursula Loyer. Vincent is ready for sex. He announces early on, in a conversation with another lodger, that all he can think about is girls and undressing them. Mrs. Loyer, however, is no girl. Vincent's attraction, we're told - but not shown - is really based on the fact that they are soul mates.

The audience is immersed in a psychological never-never land. Vincent speaks of his despair, but is portrayed as a buoyant and enthusiastic innocent at play's start. He winds up a wretched loser by its end, but we're not told why. Mrs. Loyer is mysteriously transformed into a love-struck ingénue after more than a decade of wearing widow's black and a long face. Vincent's sister arrives from Holland and within hours has taken over and become a one-woman Maid's Brigade.

Staging it in the round created many challenges for Director Kurt Beattie. One particularly tough scene occurs in the second act. Vincent, overcome by his passion for the widow Loyer, unbuttons her blouse as she sits at the kitchen table. It is a pivotal moment in the play, demanding intense performances by both actors. Sadly, more than half of the audience can't even see what Vincent is doing, much less the expressions on her face as he's doing it.

Anne Allgood as Ursula Loyer and Shawn Telford as Vincent try mightily to make the best of the script, but their job is almost impossible. Renata Friedman as Anna van Gogh is more successful, possibly because her character serves as comic relief in but one scene. With her mastery of her character's funny accent, outrageous bossiness and godly cleanliness, Friedman allows the audience to sit back and enjoy the lampoon.

The simple but oh-so-complex set by Scott Weldin and lighting by Rick Paulsen work wonderfully. The entire play is staged in the kitchen of the Loyer house. It's a typical kitchen of the late 19 century, but it also as an homage to van Gogh's art. Here the connection to the artist's paintings works by being far more subtle than the clichéd references to star-studded black skies and potatoes dotting the script.

The table is a shade of green that appears in many of his interiors. An arm chair near the sink is of the same style as the rocker in his famous "La Berceuse." The chairs around the table don't match one another, but they do match any number of chairs sat on by many van Gogh subjects including Madame Roulin, one of his favorite models during his time in Arles. The tree branches reflected in the kitchen windows echo the seasonal changes that van Gogh captured on his many canvases of trees and orchards.

My most favorite allusion is to "The Potato Eaters," one of his most ambitious early works. The tea pots in the painting and in Mrs. Loyer's kitchen are the same. There are similarities in furniture, too.

But most important is the arresting moment at the very end of the play, when Mrs. Loyer is seated at the table. The lights go down; the stage is almost dark, reduced in color to dismal browns and blacks; a single spotlight illuminates her sad face. In that instant she is one of the potato eaters.

The productions of this play in London and New York were generally lauded. Although I can't heap praise on the ACT production, it has some good elements. I wouldn't call it a bad night at the theatre. It's just not a great one.[[In-content Ad]]