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For the second time in September, Theatre in the Park will pay tribute to the singular life and art of legendary 20th century American artist Georgia O'Keeffe (1887-1986). The Faraway Nearby, playwright John Murrell's poetic drama about the final years of Georgia O'Keeffe's long and eventful life, opens tonight and runs through Oct. 5. (California opera singer, composer, lyricist, and librettist Karen Melander-Magoon performed her stirring one-woman operetta, Georgia: A Musical Portrait of Georgia O'Keeffe, Sept. 5 as a fundraiser for TIP and The Frankie Lemmon School.)
Two of the Triangle's finest actors — Erica Nashan and D. Anthony Pender — will play O'Keeffe and John "Juan" Hamilton, the good friend of the artist's twilight years.
"This play was recommended last year to my husband, Steve, by Eric Woodall," says director Shawn Stewart-Larson. "TIP's staff didn't have a slot for it until this season. Eric felt that the intimate nature of the script would work well in TIP's intimate theater."
Stewart-Larson, who normally works wonders as TIP's resident costume designer, will not only stage this show, but also dress its costume cast members and serve as the show's sound designer. Her husband, Stephen J. Larson, will double as set and lighting designer for The Faraway Nearby. Stewart-Larson says other members of the show's production staff include makeup designer Becca Coffman ("She's done a fabulous job") and scenic artist James Arnold (the husband of Erica Nashan), whose work Stewart-Larson characterized as outstanding.
"Probably the thing that really attracted me to [The Faraway Nearby],"Stewart-Larson says, "was being able to marry my multiple backgrounds in theater and art history. I worked on an interdisciplinary master's degree, combining production design and art history, while a graduate student in Kansas."
She says, "I also really like it that when you go home after seeing this production, you'll know so much more about Georgia O'Keeffe, the woman — not just Ms. O'Keeffe, the painter. When you study art history, you learn about the artist's technique and how the artist's work contributes to culture, but you don't learn much about their personalities and what makes them tick. Since the first 40 minutes of The Faraway Nearby are Georgia only — essentially a one-woman show — she reveals so much of her internal thoughts and feelings in an extended monologue with the audience.
"I really identify with Ms. O'Keeffe," says Shawn Stewart-Larson, "and as a feminist, I really wanted to direct this piece for three reasons. First, the Triangle doesn't have enough female directors working; and, second, Ms. O'Keeffe is the ultimate feminist — in fact, she was quite the feminist before the word had even been coined.
"You can use a lot of words to describe her — feminist, ecologist, environmentalist, modernist," notes Shawn Stewart-Larson "I identify with all those qualities, as well as her determination to live independently and a 'what you see is what you get' spunkiness."
Her third reason for wanting to direct this show, Stewart-Larson says, is the fact that "I'm trained in all areas of theater, and I was aching to combine my skills as a designer and director in order to really give my personal vision and touch to the production. I'm especially proud of my sound design. I found some pieces by musicians using instruments native to the American Southwest.
Stewart-Larson says, "We meet Georgia O'Keeffe (Erica Nashan) soon after her husband, famed photographer Arthur Stieglitz, has died; and she's moved permanently to the northern New Mexico wilderness. In the first segment of the play, approximately 40 minutes long, Georgia is depicted in her daily life, alone, at her beloved home known as Ghost Ranch and also in the canyons that she calls, the 'Faraway.' We learn about her opinions about art, life, and her love for the wilderness she calls home.
"She lives alone," Stewart-Larson emphasizes, "and is happy to be alone until, after 25 years of solitude, she's visited by John 'Juan' Hamilton (D. Anthony Pender), who suddenly awakens her to the fact that she is, in fact, lonely."
Stewart-Larson says, "Juan, a potter and artist in his own right, comes to Georgia looking for work as a handyman. She's 60 years his senior, but they learn that they have more in common than they have differences. Over time, their relationship changes to one of great friendship and respect, as he becomes more of a confidant and trusted advisor, instead of simply an employee. As she ages into the final years of her life (she lived to be 98), for the first time she must rely on someone to help her and that person was Juan. His calm, comforting demeanor contrasts, but complements, her feisty, take-no-prisoners spirit."
Staging The Faraway Nearby presents quite a challenge for director Shawn Stewart-Larson, her production team, and her stellar cast.
"Perhaps the most challenging aspect is that although Georgia lived to be 98, she was in such excellent health that, even in her 90s, she moved and acted 20 years younger," Stewart-Larson explains. "We watched a video documentary done about her when she was 91 years old. Watching her climbing the mountains around her home, and climbing a ladder up onto the roof of her house, you just forget how old she is. Trying to find the right balance for my actress — getting the audience to accept her age when she doesn't move the way you'd think an 'old' woman would — has been a constant challenge. I think Erica does a great job with the physicality."
Stewart-Larson says, "The set also stretched Steve's creative wings. We have to show both the inside and outside of a portion of Ghost Ranch, as well as the canyons and mountains she retreats to. With the intimate nature of our theater, everything is presented simultaneously, and Steve's lighting directs the audience to focus only on the portions of the stage that are needed at any one time. His work is beautiful, and I would be remiss if I didn't mention the exquisite painting done by James Arnold, our scenic artist. There's a nice surprise in the set in Act II — I don't want to give that away — you need to see it with your own eyes.
The show's costumes are unremarkable, Stewart-Larson says. "Georgia was not a fashionista," she explains. "It's not a costumey type of show."
Lighting the show was much more of a challenge. "Steve's chosen a lot of colors that remind you of the Southwest," says Stewart-Larson. "He bathes the scenes in warm rusts and ambers in the daytime scenes, and fills the space with cool blues for evenings and one [scene] lit mainly by a lantern."
Shawn Stewart-Larson adds, "Even though Georgia was born in 1887, her outlook on life still seems quite contemporary. I think if you've previously just dismissed her as someone who painted big flowers and skulls, then you haven't even begun to pierce that surface into the amazing soul of Georgia O'Keeffe. I hope people come to be fascinated to learn about who she is as a person. I hope after you've seen The Faraway Nearby that, like my company, you'll want to learn more about Ms. O'Keeffe — seeking out biographies, and looking for her work in contemporary art museums. I feel privileged to have been allowed to present such a strong, intriguing woman to the Triangle community."
Theatre in the Park presents The Faraway Nearby Friday-Saturday, Sept. 19-20, at 8 p.m.; Thursday-Saturday, Sept. 25-27 and Oct. 2-4, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, Sept. 28 and Oct. 5, at 3 p.m. at TIP, 107 Pullen Rd., Raleigh, North Carolina. $18 ($12 students and seniors). 919/831-6058 and 831-6936. TIP: http://theatreinthepark.com/2003_2004_season/the_faraway_nearby/page_the_faraway_nearby.html [inactive 1/04]. Georgia O'Keeffe Museum: http://www.okeeffemuseum.org/indexflash.php.