Where: Steppenwolf Upstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St.
When: through Nov. 5
By ANNE SPISELMAN
Sometimes the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Sometimes it isn’t.
I kept hoping that the four scenes that make up “The Rembrandt,” Jessica Dickey’s moving meditation on art, life, death, love, loss, grief, and more would coalesce into a cohesive picture, but somehow they don’t. Although they build and comment on each other, they remain like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that don’t quite fit together.
On the other hand, Steppenwolf Theatre’s beautifully acted Chicago premiere directed by Hallie Gordon is by turns hilarious and heart-breaking, mundane and profound. The two key performances—by ensemble members Francis Guinan as museum guard Henry and painter Rembrandt and John Mahoney as his dying husband Simon and the blind poet Homer—are brilliant, and they get rich support from a trio of younger actors who also play dual roles.
The premise is set up in a long, arguably too long, opening scene in “a major art museum in the United States.” We first see veteran museum guard Henry in the dark contemplating a painting, which we later learn is Rembrandt’s “Aristotle with a Bust of Homer” (also known as “Aristotle Contemplating a Bust of Homer” and in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York). We don’t, however, see the painting or the others in the gallery, which are represented by a couple of ornate frames. We do see a bust of Homer and a lyre on different pedestals.
After security guard Johnny (Gabriel Ruiz) arrives, turns on the lights, and invites Henry to Easter dinner, we get some insight into Henry’s vast knowledge of—and reverence for– the art he’s assigned to protect, as well as his guilt about preferring work to caring for his partner who is dying of stage four cancer.
Next a young woman, Madeline (Karen Rodriguez), arrives to copy the painting for an art class in which she’s enrolled to try to relieve her grief over the recent death of her grandmother. She shares Henry’s love and respect for the art, while Dodger (Ty Olwin), who soon joins them, is an irreverent street artist who believes in really engaging with the works. It’s his first day on the job as a museum guard (I doubt he’d be hired in real life), and he wants the others to touch the art, literally.
They’re convinced, improbably, and when they each touch a different part of the painting on Henry’s suggestion—he takes the golden chain of being Aristotle is wearing—we’re catapulted back to Rembrandt’s studio in his Amsterdam home circa 1653, the year he created “Aristotle” for Don Antonio Ruffo, a Sicilian he despised.
Dickey has a lot of fun portraying the artist as a crude, drunken spendthrift in contrast to the way he’s perceived almost 400 years later, and his home life features loving second wife, Henny (Rodriguez), who basically takes care of everything, and his childlike son, Titus (Olwin), who feels neglected by his father. They all seem to think and speak like we do, and sweet tidbits include an amusing take on why Aristotle’s hands are two different sizes in the painting. The switch from Henry to Rembrandt is an actor’s gold mine, and Guinan has a field day with it.
Next we travel back roughly to 800 BC and a temple in Greece (the program tells us), where Homer delivers a long monologue that starts with him railing against the idea of his words being written down, because they’re meant to be spoken. Mahoney begins in a humorous vein but soon becomes riveting as the poet discusses his feelings about death and dying.
Then, before we can fully process what he’s said, Homer morphs into another poet, Simon, and climbs into his sick bed. Cast back into the present, we witness an incredibly touching scene between him and Henry, who comes home and promises to be there from now on. As both eat bits of pudding from little plastic cups, he confesses his failure and begs Simon not to die, even as both he and we know that’s not possible. This connection with another human being he loves is the emotional payoff for everything before it in the play, even if the pieces don’t add up in any logical way.
One problem may be that the staging in Steppenwolf’s wide upstairs theater isn’t quite right. For example, I’m told that Regina Garcia’s scenic design includes a copy of the Rembrandt painting in Simon’s room, but I couldn’t see it from where I was sitting. Also, the decision not to show any paintings in the museum seemed odd, as did a few of Gordon’s directorial choices.
Overall, though, “The Rembrandt” is both engaging and thought provoking; however, I recommend seeing it before Oct. 22, when Guinan leaves the cast. In truth, this is really his show.