I ventured to New York City on June 15th to see a limited run of Vincent, the passionate one-man show about the life of Vincent van Gogh, and I am so glad I did!
Vincent takes place a week after van Gogh’s death, his life recalled by his mourning brother, Theo, as he ruffles through a suitcase filled with hundreds of Vincent’s letters.
Written by Leonard Nimoy in the 1970’s, and based on the play Van Gogh by Phillip Stephens, Vincent is an astonishing, fervent piece; a 90 minute, non-stop, bang-bang monologue which left me happy, sad, breathless, and totally satisfied. This production starred Jean-Michel Richaud as Theo, and directed with deft passion by Paul Stein.
Vincent is presented on a simple set, with a wicker desk and a few chairs, an easel with a frame but no canvas, and a small rear monitor to the side which showcases Vincent’s work throughout. Theo enters meekly, thanking the audience for coming, and asks forgiveness for not being able to speak at his brother’s funeral a week earlier. As Theo goes through the letters he alternates between being himself and his brother, often losing himself in Vincent’s passions. It is a brilliant performance that Mr. Richaud delivers with the full intensity of his heart and soul. As Theo relates his memories, we feel the loss, anger, frustration, and joy of his relationship with Vincent. The brother’s time together churned between love and hate, just as the stars and heavens churn in van Gogh’s Starry Night. But it isn’t all sadness; there are many lighter and funnier moments, some of which made me laugh out loud! And surely despite their hardships, the love between them was undeniable.
Mr. Richaud was marvelous, and he totally wraps the audience up in Theo’s remembrances. Early in the show, as we’re told of Vincent’s attempts to be a minister, he impersonates Vincent giving a fiery sermon; all completely in French. This not only showcases Richaud’s heritage, but adds even more to the intensity of the moment where Vincent, ever trying to heal and save his flock, nearly brings the house down. It’s a stunning, exciting moment that, in the original production, was done in English. But even non-French speakers can all the more appreciate the urgency in Vincent’s words with Richaud’s perfect delivery.
We learn that Vincent’s attempt to minister is the first in a long line of the artist’s quest to please people, some unorthodox, but always coupled with the need for acceptance. Theo sifts through the letters trying to figure out Why. In a moment of frenzied frustration, Theo cries “Vincent, will you ever learn to love yourself!?” and he hurls all the letters into the air. It is a stunning moment of despair, but Theo eventually finds solace in knowing that his brother found some peace in the last 70 days of his life, creating piece after piece, as if he knew the end was near. Vincent was happiest with outsiders, prostitutes, prisoners, laborers and eventually found a brief haven of peace in an asylum, where the demons of his Epilepsy could be quelled by his need to create art. His goodbye to Vincent is one of the most beautiful farewells I’ve ever seen on a stage.
I would like to see Vincent make it to Broadway, it certainly deserves that chance. There have been regional productions of it, most recently Mr. Richaud’s in Los Angeles. I think anyone who loves art, passion, and life itself should see it; it is a renewing experience. On a personal note, I found myself keenly identifying with Theo in his grief, as at the time it had only been two weeks since my own mother’s passing, and the play proved to be a bit cathartic to me, and just the tonic I needed to help me through this sad time. (Of course, seeing my childhood hero Nimoy in person afterward was a huge boost to my spirits, and you can read that account here).
Some interesting facts I did not know about Vincent van Gogh:
· * Vincent was born “twice” – that is, an older brother, stillborn exactly one year before Vincent’s birth, was also named Vincent. As a child he would be taken to his brother’s grave every Sunday, which surely affected his spiritual beliefs.
· *Vincent suffered from Epilepsy, and his seizures could produce maddening hallucinations and voices in his head – something that very likely have caused him to sever part of his ear, in a desperate hope of silencing the voices.
· * In the last 70 days of his life, Vincent produced an astonishing of art, often two a day, with a grand total of 100 new pieces at his death.
· *His death may have been accidentally prompted by bullies who taunted him as he was painting in a wheat field which led to the gunshot wound in his abdomen. (Nimoy believes this to be the case now)
· * Heartbroken and ailing, Theo died only 6 months after Vincent.
Quotes from Vincent:
· “A Life without love is a sinful condition. I will not live without love. “
· “I paint what I feel, not what I see.”
· “Love, Beauty, and God are all the same thing.”
· “Did you clean the brushes?”
· “Theo, I wish I could die like this.”
Vincent left me with a greater appreciation of the artist and his work, it also reminded me that creativity is not only a great outlet for one’s art, but also a haven for one’s sanity. If Vincent comes to your town – get right to it! It is truly love of life on a grand scale.