By the latter part of the last century, at least four women had become living legends in the arts: choreographer Martha Graham, painter Georgia O’Keeffe and sculptors Louise Nevelson and Louise Bourgeois. Asked about Bourgeois, Susan Rome, in character as the narcissistic Nevelson in Edward Albee’s two-person play “Occupant,” says: “Never heard of her. Who’s she?”
Rome isn’t Anne Bancroft, for whom the play was written in 2002 (Bancroft dropped out due to illness and the production was canceled). She isn’t Mercedes Ruehl, who starred in the 2008 premiere. Having a celebrity actor in the role in 2019 would not have helped the illusion that you were seeing Nevelson — actually, her ghost — onstage.
But having an actor whose craft was less than fully developed wouldn’t have helped either. And Rome, flapping two pairs of sable eyelashes, is phenomenal.
The set-up: about 20 years after Nevelson’s death in 1988, she has been summoned to some sort of cosmic talk-show studio, furnished with two white settees. Between them is a round table with a water carafe and glasses. Off to one side is a lectern — the domain of the second character, known as the Man — and centered in the tall back wall of wood planks is a huge blow-up of photographer Richard Avedon’s witchy 1975 portrait of Nevelson, all in black (like her legendary sisters) and clawing at her clunky necklaces.
When Rome appears, she is dressed more like Lynn Gilbert’s 1976 photograph: in layers of colorful peasant clothes, her head wrapped in a scarf. During the play, she stomps around the set in boots, claps her hands together, walks off at the end of the first act “to pee” (odd for a ghost) and reappears for the second act from the rear of Theater J’s steeply raked auditorium, having been eavesdropping.
Baited by the bold if somewhat nebbishy “Man,” acted by Jonathan David Martin (“Do facts matter nothing to you?”), Rome-Nevelson fires back, often playing to the audience (“Ignore him!). As the show progresses, she softens a bit, poking the shoulder of this interviewer/prosecutor/therapist/medium figure, who wears jacket, tie, vest and pocket square and carries a trim portfolio of archival documents and photos.
We learn of the future art-world superstar’s childhood as Leah Berliawsky, first in what is now Ukraine and then in Rockland, Maine; her marriage to pudgy older businessman Charles Nevelson and her suffocatingly conventional life with him in New York City; her escape in the early 1930s to study in Europe, where she met and in some cases slept with like-minded creative types (the Man: “I have a list of your supposed lovers”); how she was “a rotten mother” to her son; and her decades of artistic rejection (mostly), financial setbacks, drinking and depression.
What kept her from killing herself? “Maybe it was the horse, the big, black horse,” she muses, recalling a possibly imagined Maine memory as we hear a recorded violin. There were also transformative museum encounters with African art and Japanese robes (“Life is worth living if a civilization can give us this!”).
From a young age through her 50s, Nevelson struggled to reach the space she felt destined to “occupy,” one of the two sources for the play’s name. To learn the other, you will need to see the show. You will also need to see the show to experience the reveal that follows Nevelson’s recounting of her artistic breakthrough:
“I want to talk to you,” she says, “about wood.” She bangs on the little table. “I moved furniture out so I could have wood,” she continues, describing how she obsessively collected wood scraps from the streets of New York. “Suddenly I knew.”
Part of the credit for Rome’s astounding impersonation goes to Albee, who knew Nevelson well, and to this production’s director, Aaron Posner. Albee, author of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” — which Posner directed at Ford’s Theatre shortly after the playwright’s death in 2016 — was a master of both monologue and dialogue; both forms are effectively used in “Occupant,” monologue in particular.
Edward Albee’s “Occupant” runs through Dec. 8 at Theater J. On Sunday, Nov. 24, a symposium will follow the 2 p.m. performance. On Sunday, Dec. 1, an informal conversation, with wine, will follow the 7:30 p.m. performance.
Edward Albee’s “Occupant”
Through Dec. 8 at Theater J
Edlavitch DCJCC, 1529 16th St. NW