The current Theatre in the Park presentation of playwright John Murrell's poetic and, at times, profane biographical drama, The Faraway Nearby, will leave a lump in your throat, a tear in your eye, and a smile on your face. Imaginatively and sensitively staged by guest director Shawn Stewart-Larson and brilliantly designed and lit by her husband, TIP technical director Stephen J. Larson, The Faraway Nearby is a poignant but frequently amusing chronicle of the final lonely years of legendary 20th century American artist Georgia O'Keeffe (1887-1986) and the unlikely friendship that developed between the reclusive, fiercely independent, and somewhat prickly painter and sculptor and her handyman/friend/fellow artist John "Juan" Hamilton, a ceramic artist making his living performing odd jobs for the ranchers of New Mexico.
Even in long gray wig and facial prosthesis to alter her nose to make her look more like Georgia O'Keeffe, Erica Nashan gives a stunning performance as the crusty, cantankerous loner who grudgingly takes Hamilton on as a handyman and gradually takes him into her heart as the closest friend of her twilight years. During the times depicted in the play, O'Keeffe was widely recognized as a true American original living alone, with her dogs, in her home at Ghost Ranch in northern New Mexico, in the midst of the dry and dangerous desert wilderness that she dubbed "The Faraway."
Nashan gives a heartfelt, deeply moving performance as the eccentric artist; and D. Anthony Pender proves to be the perfect foil — just as the laidback, easy-going Hamilton proved the perfect antidote for the sometimes suspicious and crabby O'Keeffe from the day they met in 1973 until O'Keeffe's death in 1986 at age 98. Hamilton saw O'Keeffe at her best and at her worst, and remained a true friend to the often difficult artist.
As the decades go by, the characterizations, gaits, and mannerisms of Nashan and Pender change and evolve, just like the friendship between the two characters they portray did. Director Shawn Stewart-Larson has cast this show perfectly and shares considerable credit for the luminous performances that make The Faraway Nearby a must-see drama.
Steve Larson's marvelously detailed sets, which recreate key portions of O'Keeffe's physical and psychic universe, including an erratic waterfall, are perhaps his best creations since he came to TIP. And Larson's atmospheric lighting, which subtly indicates the transitions from morning to evening to afternoon, is quite impressive in its own right.
Makeup designer Becca Coffman does a fine job of aging Erica Nashan to play the elderly O'Keeffe; and Shawn Stewart-Larson, who is TIP's resident costume designer and doubles as sound designer on The Faraway Nearby, provides a well-worn, lived-in look for the wardrobe of her cast and lovely incidental music to accent the mood of each scene.
The choice contributions of sculptor Mike Raab and scenic artist James Arnold (who happens to be the husband of leading lady Erica Nashan) also deserve special praise. But it is the inspired staging by Shawn Stewart-Larson and equally inspired acting by Erica Nashan and D. Anthony Pender that won the hearts and minds of the opening-night audience Sept. 19th.
Theatre in the Park presents The Faraway Nearby 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 919/831-6936. TIP: http://theatreinthepark.com/2003_2004_season/the_faraway_nearby/page_the_faraway_nearby.html [inacive 1/04]. Georgia O'Keeffe Museum: http://www.okeeffemuseum.org/indexflash.php.