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San Francisco by Richard Connema

TheatreWorks Should Be Proud of Its Production of Vincent in Brixton

Also see Richard's reviews of Miss Coco Peru Undaunted,
Teatro ZinZanni, Rob Becker's Defending the Caveman and Evita

Vincent in Brixton
Jacob Blumer and
Gloria Biegler

TheatreWorks is presenting the Northern California premiere of Nicholas Wright's Vincent in Brixton at the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto through April 3rd. This is a sterling production with bang-up performances by Jacob Blumer as Van Gogh and Gloria Biegler as the widow, and the object of Vincent's affection in this May to December romance.

Vincent in Brixton opened in London at the Royal National Cottesloe Theatre in the spring of 2002 where it captured the 2003 Olivier Award for Best New Play. The play was completely sold out every night due to the positive reviews from West End critics. The demand for tickets was so great that it moved to the larger Wyndham Theatre in the West End. Needless to say, New York audiences were anxious to see the latest triumph from the British stage; Lincoln Center presented the comedy-drama at the John Golden Theatre on March 6th 2003 where it ran for 69 performances. The center also brought over the two leading actors, Dutch actor Jochum Ten Haaf and British actress Claire Higgins. The play was nominated for a Tony as Best Drama and Claire Higgins was nominated for best actress. Both Ms. Higgins and Mr. Haaf were awarded 2003 Theatre World Awards.

Regional theatres started to get in line to present this five-character play immediately after it closed in New York. The California premiere occurred last summer at the Pasadena Playhouse with Stephanie Zimbalist and Graham Miller.

Vincent takes place in the kitchen of the home of the Loyers in the London suburb of Brixton from 1873 through 1876. It is true that Vincent Van Gogh came to London as a young man during that time and that he lodged at 87 Hackford Rd. SW9 during 1873-1874; there are many letters chronicling this influential period in the life of what was to be one of the greatest imaginative artists of the 19th century. Wright has taken certain liberties with Van Gogh's life in the rooming house and an affair with the older widow Ursula Loyer who runs the house.

Vincent is a shy, very tactless young man who veers from silence to outrageous behavior when he arrives at the lodging house. He makes statements that shock the host, her daughter and lodger Sam, a wannabee artist. One begins to see the making of the mad or eccentric person that the artist became later in life. Vincent's reason for moving into the house is that he has seen Ursula's daughter Eugenie (Jessa Brie Berkner) bring a cup of tea to the lodger Sam Plowman (Kai Morrison) who is painting a picture of the outside residence. He is "immediately" in love with the young girl and he also spies a sign in the front that is advertising for a lodger. One gets the idea that virgin Vincent is more lustful for the young girl than in "true love." He talks his way into lodging at the house and soon finds that the daughter and Sam are having a passionate affair. Vincent's love turns to the widow mother who lost her husband 15 years previous. He cherishes this woman who never wanted to have another relationship and has remained melancholy for lack of love.

Ursula cannot help herself and, although she considers herself old, she falls in love with the young man. As Vincent says when Ursula states she is too old for the young man, "no woman is old as long as she loves and is loved." The love transforms the widow into a glowing and hopeful woman. However, tragedy strikes when Vincent goes back to Holland for a brief visit and brings back his tumultuous younger sister Anna (Jennifer Erdmann) who causes havoc in the peaceful house. Anna won't stay, believing that the daughter is having affairs with both of the men of the house, and Vincent, who is still weak-minded, abandons the widow. The widow suffers a breakdown and becomes morose with fits of blackest depression.

Vincent returns several years later and one can see he is slowly going mad since he has lost his job and now wants to be "an itinerate preacher spreading God's work." Ursula, who does not want to rekindle a romance, cries "All I wanted was someday, somehow, to be the cause of something remarkable." Vincent tries to comfort her by stating "I've lived in sorrow. This is your gift to me. It never leaves me now," and we now see that an artist is born as he sketches a pair of old, worn-out workman's shoes (the famous painting "A Pair of Shoes" dated 1887 that has been re-produced everywhere) that are on the kitchen table.

New York director Kent Nicholson (directed All My Sons at TheatreWorks, Five Flights and Wet off Broadway) has assembled a superb cast of five actors for this two-act drama. Gloria Biegler (Broadway credits include Arcadia and Spoils of War and Off Broadway Mrs Klein and King Lear at the Roundabout plus television appearances) gives a meticulous performance as Ursula. There is a quiet contained intensity about her characterization of the widow. Her manner and her facial expressions give remarkable delicacy and lucidity that is amazing to watch. The last scene with no dialogue is one of the great acting performances this year.

Jacob Blumer (recent graduate from TheatreArts at Yale and Inherit the Wind at the Cape Cod Playhouse) is first rate as Vincent. He gives an engaging performance from his first entrance to the house, almost as a comically submissive character with short cut speeches in a Dutch dialect. The actor even looks like a young Vincent Van Gogh. We watch his amazing changes as he "grows" into a more adult, possessive person with a touch of madness at the end of the play.

Jessa Brie Berkner and Kai Morrison are excellent as the young lovers; Morrison gives one of the greatest speeches on art when he eulogize that beauty does not necessarily have to be found in museums but in the workman's hands and his shoes, which becomes a catalyst for the sketching in the last scene of the drama. Jennifer Erdmann provides a nice piece of comic character acting as the younger sister in the second act.

Kent Nicholson's direction is excellent and gets wonderful performances from the lead characters who convey quivering strengths to deep desolation. Duke Durfee, scenic designer, has fashioned a full set that looks straight from the late 19th century: kitchen, with a wood-burning stove, a kitchen pump, antique wooden table and various increments that one would find in a kitchen of the period. Allison Connor's costumes are very authentic for the period, and the lighting of Michel Palumbo is exceptional.

Vincent in Brixton runs through April 3rd at the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Rd, Palo Alton. Tickets can be obtained by calling 650-903-6000 or visit www.theatreworks.org. TheatreWorks' next production will be Regina Taylor's Crowns opening on April 6th at the Mountain View Performing Arts Center.


Photo: David Allen


Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area


- Richard Connema



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