From left: Pat Reynolds (Gauguin), Richard McGraw (Drs. Miller… (Bud Johnson, Special to…)
Colonial Players' production of Steven Dietz's "Inventing van Gogh" provides an intriguing set of mysteries about the existence of a mythical last self-portrait by the artist, the man himself and the modern art scene.
First-time CP director Michelle Harmon rates high marks for meeting the challenges that arose during production. She had signed on to direct "Radio Golf" by August Wilson, which ended up being pulled from the schedule "because of rights issues." "Inventing van Gogh" was chosen as a replacement.
Harmon agreed to direct "Van Gogh" after her first reading. Then, two weeks before opening and well into rehearsals, an actor playing one of the major characters injured himself and ended up in a cast up to his knee for six weeks. That actor, James Poole, continued in the role despite his injury.
In her director's notes, Harmon credits Poole and her other CP colleagues with helping her "to grow as an artist, director and person."
With his 2003 play, Dietz offers a well-researched work likely to interest audiences with some knowledge of art history, those fascinated by van Gogh or anyone curious about the process of creating art.
Dietz's play is about modern artists as well as those in van Gogh's time, and the creativity of each era.
Artist Patrick Stone's mentor, Professor Jonas Miller, is obsessed with van Gogh and is searching for a final self-portrait, which he is convinced exists. Miller dies of a gunshot wound on the anniversary of van Gogh's death, near where the artist shot himself.
Art authenticator Rene Bouchard asks Patrick to forge the portrait, which he will declare is authentic. Patrick is ambivalent about the project, and when he experiences a creative block he hallucinates discussing art with van Gogh.
The conversations are natural and fluid, with artists of different eras simultaneously creating on canvas. Scenes move seamlessly between van Gogh's 19th-century world and Patrick's contemporary one.
In addition to Dr. Miller and Bouchard, Patrick interacts with Dr. Miller's daughter, Hallie.
Van Gogh interacts with fellow artist Paul Gauguin, Dr. Paul Gachet and Gachet's daughter, Marguerite.
In Colonial Players' production, Richard McGraw skillfully plays both Miller and Gachet, who treated and admired van Gogh, investing each with his own complex persona to leave a lingering impression of two men coping with degrees of guilt.
Poole's Patrick is a multifaceted, self-assured, contemporary young artist whose dilemmas fascinate, especially when portraying his conflicted reactions to van Gogh.
I found Stephen Michael Deininger's portrayal of van Gogh lacking in the passion that for many of us is present in his paintings. His van Gogh is most compelling when expressing his veneration of the masters or defending the rushed quality of his art to Patrick — explaining his rapid slashing of paint as needing to create during his periods "of terrible lucidity."
Deininger's van Gogh comes vibrantly alive again in interchanges with Gauguin, brilliantly realized by Pat Reynolds, who makes the most of having been given some of Dietz's best lines. Reynolds' Gauguin is a realist who would survive in his world without being burdened by conscience or guilt.
Samantha McEwen makes an impressive CP debut as dual characters Marguerite Gachet, whom she invests with a palpable longing for van Gogh's affection, and Hallie, a more complex contemporary woman who deals with her father's rejection by getting involved with transient artists like Patrick.
Jason Vaughan conveys the cynicism and egotism of art authenticator Rene Bouchard.
Among praiseworthy behind-the-scenes staff, Kaelynn Miller makes her CP debut as costume designer to help define two eras, and artist Heather Quinn creates a prodigious collection of original art, reproducing several of van Gogh's iconic paintings while adding an identifiable resemblance to actors playing the role in the portraits.
If you go
"Inventing van Gogh" continues Thursdays-Sundays, through Feb. 26 at 108 East St., Annapolis. Information: thecolonialplayers.org. Tickets: 410-268-7373.