Regional Reviews: Chicago
That's the premise of this modest but affecting play by Jessica Dickey, set in a room of major art museum where Rembrandt's "Aristotle with a Bust of Homer" is on display. An older, long-time guard named Henry (Francis Guinan) is protecting the art in the room and providing some training and orientation to a new guard named Dodger (Ty Olwin), an unconventional and perhaps mildly troubled youth. While Henry is out of the room, Dodger proposes to art student Madeline (Karen Rodriguez) that she touch the painting and that he'll let her do it. She takes offense at the suggestion and declines, but the two start to connect and after Henry returns, someone touches the painting, though I won't say who. Through the course of their conversations, we learn they're all dealing with loss. Henry's life partner Simon (John Mahoney) is dying of cancer and isn't expected to live much longer. Madeline, we're told, recently lost her mother.
A desire to connect with Rembrandt as a person leads us to a second scene, in which Guinan plays Rembrandt, and Olwin is Rembrandt's son Titus. We see that Rembrandt is none too happy about his commission from the Sicilian nobleman Don Antonio Ruffo that will become "Aristotle with a Bust of Homer." Though the painter's work would become immortal, Rembrandt himself is shown to be a quite human and imperfect man. He and Titus, like their contemporary counterparts, have suffered great loss. Titus's mother died shortly after his birth and his three older siblings all died in infancy. Titus and his father painter fear losing each other, their only blood family. (Rodriguez also appears in this scene as Rembrandt's maid and mistress Henny.)
And just as the present-day characters revered Rembrandt, the painter appears to have revered Homer, the subject of the painting in question. In a third scene, we meet the "real" Homer (Mahoney). In a monologue, Homer is worried that efforts to write down his epic poems "The Odyssey" and "The Iliad" will deprive them of much of their meaning. He says the vocal interpretation in reading the works is essential and fears his work will be effectively lost to the ages after he is gone and unable to read it for audiences himself.
In the final scene, we finally meet Simon (Mahoney), Henry's dying partner. Simon shares Homer's fear that his poetry will not survive. It's this scene that really sticks with one after leaving the theater. As directed by Hallie Gordon, the performances by Mahoney and Guinan as the two lovers are so sincere and touching, their love and impending grief are palpable. Their acting is so moving one barely can think about it as acting, but is more likely just to experience the emotion.
The reminder that we are all mortal is not a new idea, nor is the thought they people live on in the love and memories of those who survive them, or in the works they leave behind. This production of The Rembrandt is exceptional, though, for the way it makes the audience feel the emotions of grief and love in its characters.
The Rembrandt plays through November 5, 2017, in Steppenwolf's Upstairs Theatre. For ticket information visit www.steppenwolf.org or call 312-335-1650.