She finishes: “...and most of them are okay.”
On the surface, this saucy little exchange might seem like nothing more than another dollop of the brand of hard-knock badinage its author, Edward Albee, has spent his last five decades in the theatre perfecting. But it’s also the neon-tinged theme statement of his witty and wonderful play Occupant, which is at last seeing its long-delayed Signature Theatre Company debut at Peter Norton Space.
The present, Albee argues, has always had an uneasy relationship with the past. Attempts to “fix” things that went “wrong” are commonplace, attempts to erase one-time vulgarities are almost as frequent, and attempts to over-define what happened before with those pesky facts can destroy the real events beyond repair. A single person’s life, like humanity as a whole, is nothing without the ambiguous stories on which it thrives - but depending on when you’re born and what you experience in your time on Earth, you might interpret the words a bit differently.
Pick a subject, any subject. Say, for example, the sculptor Louise Nevelson, whose “found wood” works epitomized just this spirit of creating something new from that which has been discarded. Certain things about her are known: she was born Leah Berliawsky just outside of Kiev in 1899 and came to America when she was very young, she moved back and forth between poverty and wealth, she developed a habit of wearing two pairs of sable eyelashes on each eye, while on her hospital death bed she had her door’s nameplate replaced with one bearing only the word “Occupant.” But is such a person nothing more than the sum total of the banalities we know about her?
Albee never loses sight of this issue as he puts Nevelson through her history-taunting paces in Occupant. The “great American sculptor” (played by Mercedes Ruehl, in a blaze of grounded eccentricity) has traveled a great distance - from beyond the grave (Nevelson died in 1988) - to be interviewed about the open question of her life. Her unnamed interlocutor (Larry Bryggman) is part historian and part journalist, utterly devoted to the truth - so much so, he tends to look past the more sweeping issues just before his eyes.
“What are we going to do,” Nevelson brays when he broaches a particularly delicate subject, “talk about everything?”
“Only what matters,” he replies simply.
To her, everything does - “true if interesting” is her own guiding mantra. (His is the considerably less fabulous “interesting if true”). And as the play unfolds, under the stark but percussive direction of Pam MacKinnon, she proves it, setting the record straight about some things (her impressive string of extra-marital lovers) and sometimes bending it around other foci (a story about her encounter with a powerful black horse that was repeated and reported so often, the fiction eventually supplanted the reality), but never letting go of the exciting, mysterious individual she was when alive.
The biggest thrill of Occupant, however, doesn’t come from putting together the puzzle of Nevelson’s life, or even the action of the play itself; in the strictest possible terms, there’s none to speak of. It’s elicited instead from Albee’s artful rendering of uncertainty in the face of actuality, the deliciously pervasive idea of someone correcting misconceptions about her - while yielding up all intellectual authority to do so. The subtle difference between personal truth and universal truth has been a longstanding theme for Albee, affecting many of his most famous plays of the past (The Zoo Story, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) and present (The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?), though he’s seldom addressed it as directly, as fully, or as strikingly as he does here.
It helps that the play is informed by Albee’s personal relationship with Nevelson, that the production is informed by its own fluid and troubled background (the original 2002 production was scuttled in previews when original star Anne Bancroft became ill), and that Nevelson herself is informed and reformed by Ruehl in a tour-de-force of color-clashing, back-handed elegance that makes indignation look like the most shaded emotion since unrequited love. Bryggman is up against a monstrous sketch of a role, but is nonetheless at his halting, contemplative best.
“People who knew you know you,” the interviewer reassures Nevelson when she blanches at the idea of having been forgotten in the 20 years since her death. The point, of course, is that they don’t - they know the person they think they knew. The “real” Louise Nevelson must remain forever a cipher to everyone but her.
She states her point of view nakedly, saying individuality and acceptance come before the fact and not after it: “You got somebody in you right from the start, and if you’re lucky you figure out who it is and you become it.” She unquestionably did. Albee may never provide in Occupant a succinct series of steps detailing how she managed it, but after two hours with this irrepressible, irreplaceable individual, you’ll understand the process - and her - as intimately as you do your own secret stories.