Artist Vincent Van Gogh spent a few years during his early 20s in Brixton, England, on the outskirts of London. While there, he roomed in the home of a widow, Ursula Loyer, and her young adult daughter, Eugenie. Playwright Nicholas Wright imagines what happened there in "Vincent in Brixton," the 2003 Olivier Award winner for best new play, being staged by TheatreWorks under the direction of Kent Nicholson.
The action takes place in the Loyer kitchen between 1873 and 1876. When the 20-year-old Vincent (Jacob Blumer) arrives from Holland, he has a job at the London outlet of Goupil & Cie, art dealers in The Hague. Ursula (Gloria Biegler) allows him to stay in a room she rents to supplement her income. She and Eugenie (Jessa Brie Berkner) also have a boys school in their home. Completing the household is another lodger, Sam Plowman (Kai Morrison), who works as a painter as in house but who aspires to become a painter as in art.
Although he speaks both English and French, in addition to his native Dutch, young Vincent is unsophisticated, brash and arrogant. He at first professes to have fallen in love with Eugenie, but his affections gradually migrate to her mother. Ursula has been a widow for some 15 years, but she's still in mourning, wearing funereal black every day. Today we'd say she's seriously depressed. For a while, Vincent's younger sister, Anna (Jennifer Erdmann), joins him in the Loyer household, but she's even more abrasive and rigid than Vincent and quickly leaves.
Mostly the plot traces the relationship between Vincent and Ursula, which has its ups and downs, especially after he abruptly leaves for a prolonged time and returns impoverished and ultra-religious. (His father was a pastor in the Dutch Reformed Church.)
Duke Durfee's set, complemented by Michael Palumbo's lighting, is a large kitchen with a wood-burning stove for cooking on one side, a cupboard and sink with pump on the other, and a large old wood table in the center. In back is a staircase. Allison Connor's costumes are suited to the time and social class. Sound is by Cliff Caruthers.
The acting is solid, highlighted by Biegler's beautifully nuanced performance as the repressed, depressed Ursula, who for a short time blossoms when she opens herself to Vincent and love. Blumer does well in the difficult role of Vincent, showing the young man changing over time. Erdmann is a bit too strident as his sister, Anna, but Morrison is excellent as Sam, who often seems to smooth things over, and Berkner does well as Eugenie, who becomes Sam's wife.
Although the play is an interesting look at the early life of one of the world's greatest artists, it veers toward melodrama, especially in the second act. Moreover, some of the transformative scenes take place offstage so that the audience learns about them only through conversations between the characters.
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