To be an artist is to be an outsider. A loner. A person overwhelmed by his passions. And more than a little insane.
That’s the premise of Stacy Sims’ play “As White As O,” now having its world premiere at the Road Theatre in North Hollywood.
In sympathy and fascination we watch as a group of artists, swamped by their unique perspectives, explore and grapple with the vicissitudes of their world. And we follow the emergence of Jack (an endearing Vince Tula), whose history has rendered him numb and fearful, as he returns to life, to love, and to hope.
Jack’s problems include a schizophrenic and delusional mother (a frighteningly crazy Elizabeth Sampson), dead to him since his childhood, and a bipolar father (Mark St. Amant), an artist whose most remarkable creation is his home, which he has transformed with “found” art, much like Simon Rodia’s towers in Watts. In addition, Jack has a physical condition called synesthesia, which involves a jumbling of his senses so that the letters of the alphabet are seen in colors (“A is red, B is blue, and O is white”) and “hope smells like a foggy morning.”
As the play begins, Jack, who had spent his childhood helping the father whom he adored “decorate” their home in Rabbit Hash, Ky, has come to New York to see it installed as an objet d’art in a show called “The Innocents: 30 Years of Outsider Art in America.” And there it stands, in a corner of the gallery, glowing in its radiant colors, adorned with buttons and discs and decapitated doll heads and coins in a garish and oddly beautiful display.
The house has been brought to New York by Clara (Lauren Clark), a canny entrepreneur who had “discovered” Jack and his father and had made a documentary film about them and their work.
Another artist whose work she has included in the show is Ed (Ramon de Ocampo), whose art consists of a stark, black-painted wall of nails draped with a panel of bright red rose petals. Ed is also constructing what he calls Jack’s “anti-history” on a blackboard as he interviews him and tracks his emotional wanderings from the present to the past and back again.
Meanwhile, downstage left, the lunatic who is Jack’s mother rants and raves in a discomfiting frenzy, shaking with fretful spasms, reliving the trauma of giving birth again and again, and, in calmer moments fantasizing that she is a goddess, the wife of Zeus. “See my crown,” she coos. A wildly disturbing presence at first, Elizabeth Sampson, in her consummate artistry, makes the mother a gripping and sadly appealing character.
Also arriving at the gallery to view Jack’s house is Lily (Kate Mines), an old girlfriend whom Jack defines as “a zealot with A.D.D.,” and Eva (Keelia Flinn), the girl he loved and abandoned back in Rabbit Hash. Rounding out the ensemble are Joe Calarco, Jennings Turner, and TJ Marchbank as gallery roustabouts, Heather Williams as Ed’s very pregnant wife, and Bryna Weiss as the patient and caring nurse/attendant at the insane asylum.
In the end, it is Ed, patiently cataloguing Jack’s feelings of numbness, who manages to break through to the maturing man inside. “There are degrees of paralysis,” he tells Jack. “People stir things up in order to feel something, but you don’t have to move to feel anything.” And he persists, “We all come from some kind of crazy,” until finally, Jack is able to acknowledge that “desire tastes great.”
There is much to admire in this unusual play. The actors are superb, thanks to Sam Anderson’s tight direction, and the small stage is illuminated by Desma Murphy’s incredible set design. Jeremy Pivnick has provided his always-impeccable lighting design, and Mary Jane Miller, David Marling, and Adam Flemming have enhanced the production with their costumes, sound, and video design, respectively.
“As White As O” is not an easy play. Starting off slowly, it barrages the viewer with a confusing jumble of unidentified characters and lots of esoteric jabber, so as to leave you thinking, “Omigod, it’s going to be one of those plays!”
But it quickly sorts itself out and becomes engrossing, thought-provoking, and in the end, thoroughly satisfying. All due to good writing, tight direction, and a fine and talented group of actors.
“As White As O” will continue at The Road Theatre in the Lankershim Arts Center, 5108 Lankershim Blvd. in North Hollywood, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. through Dec. 12. Call (866) 811-4111 for tickets.
Cynthia Citron can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.