Stage: Wednesday, September 3, 2003
Alfred Stieglitz Loves O’Keeffe
Thru Sept. 14 at Stage West, 3055 S University Dr, FW. $10-24. 817-STG-WEST.
Georgia On His Mind

The affair between a fiery artist and her mentor gets a proper treatment at Stage West.


There’s no need for me to belabor the twinges of grief I felt while watching Stage West’s revival of Lanie Robertson’s Alfred Stieglitz Loves O’Keeffe: Due to the company’s massive debt and an unforgiving economy, this is the last show at its glorious University Drive space. The Dallas director Bruce Coleman summed it up best by telling me years ago: “That space makes every play feel important.” But director Jim Covault assured the audience before the house lights went down that Stage West would be announcing a full 25th season very soon at a new location. So no eulogies here — although the playwright chosen to sound the coda in that theater does specialize in celebrating life from the angle of its close. His most famous show, Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill, was an informal one-woman biography that featured a ravaged Billie Holliday reflecting on her career during a final club performance.

Meanwhile, Alfred Stieglitz Loves O’Keeffe (as in Georgia) spans the 30-year relationship between mentor and artist, also in reverse time. It begins in 1946 with a revered and affluent Georgia (Suzi McLaughlin) on her hands and knees, hammer claw in hand, pulling the pink lining out of a wooden casket just before Alfred (Jerry Russell) is buried. Director Covault winds the couple’s way back to 1916, when obscure young Texas art teacher Georgia O’Keeffe storms the New York gallery of esteemed if controversial photographer-curator Alfred Stieglitz, demanding to know why he has hung some of her drawings without her permission. The man who just five years earlier organized and showed Picasso’s first solo exhibition — and who was beginning to see progress in his lifelong crusade to have the larger art world view still photography as a serious form — is impressed and charmed by her willfulness. He snaps those notorious nude portraits of her, she seduces him inside the gallery, and he soon leaves his wife and daughter for a second marriage and a bumpy trek to champion the world’s most famous woman painter — even if she resists him (and that qualifying label) at various turns.

I don’t know that Stage West audiences need yet another reminder of how deftly Russell dives into character roles — especially those that require less a command performance than a reserved humor and tenderness of emotion. His work as the fretful, self-deprecating German Jewish photographer is a warm rainstorm of feeling. Whether he’s furiously cursing former associates or gently trying to explain to the steely O’Keeffe — whom he variously refers to as “O’Keeffe,” “Georgie,” and a wonderfully Yiddish “girlie” — precisely why so many people have located sexual overtones in her floral imagery, Russell is seamless every moment he’s onstage.

As written, the role of Georgia O’Keeffe is, strangely enough, less fleshed-out. The play’s title does telegraph the fact that the show’s point of view is centered squarely within Stieglitz’ discerning eye. Perhaps Robertson wanted to remind us that Stieglitz’ role in 20th-century American art was more pivotal, even if his celebrity would dim over the decades while his younger wife’s would flare up to the status of legend. Unfortunately, Suzi McLaughlin is unable to find any cracks in this familiar portrait of the artist through which she can squeeze some surprising glimpses of vulnerability. We get Georgia O’Keeffe the severe beauty and no-nonsense Catholic who doesn’t suffer foolish critics and fellow artists lightly and who feels her work is being marginalized by gender expectations. Accurate enough, at least by the dictates of the legend, but also thin enough to be framed and hung on a museum wall.

Something else nagged at me as I watched McLaughlin stride square-shouldered through the role — she bears a strong facial and vocal resemblance to stage and tv actor Bebe Neuwirth. More accurately, with her dark hair pulled tightly back, she’s a dead ringer for Neuwirth’s brilliantly monotonic character Lilith from the sitcoms Frasier and Cheers. This works well for the comic moments — when O’Keeffe learns a female student of Stieglitz’ has cooked him some chicken soup, she deadpans “Slut. Every woman knows what chicken soup means,” with Lilithian conviction. But it’s distracting in other places. And there remains a disconnect between O’Keeffe the cool, androgynous brushmaster and O’Keeffe the creator of those suspiciously erect stamens and hyper-labial petals, underscored by director Covault’s decision to flash these on a giant screen toward the play’s end. The source of that carnal passion is less mysterious than it is absent in this production. McLaughlin isn’t bad — this O’Keeffe is just drawn that way. Badly superficial, that is.

By the time the two actors take their final bows, Alfred Stieglitz Loves O’Keeffe proves itself a tart and tasty convergence of romantic and creative dynamics, even if the characterizations don’t quite balance each other out. Playwright Lanie Robertson has vividly illustrated a unique reversal of roles — O’Keeffe the artist is a self-driven taskmaster who may well suffer from too much discipline, while Stieglitz, her impresario, is primarily there to help her lighten up; beauty cannot be found in art if there’s no enjoyment of life. That’s a valuable lesson for everyone — creator and audience member — who uses the former to escape the latter.

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