Review: Wisdom Tooth Theatre’s Impressionism 

A theatrical paradox directed by Amy Hayes

  • Photo credit Sarah White

3 stars 

Anyone who takes Oscar Wilde’s view that life imitates art—as expressed in his 1891 essay The Decay of Lying—will find food for thought in Impressionism, written by American writer/producer Michael Jacobs. The setting for this play is mostly a New York art gallery run by Katherine Keenan (solidly played by Carrie Ann Schlatter) who knows everything about art except how to sell it.

Projected on the stage wall during the performance are a number of notable paintings by Impressionists, as well as some love-themed Marc Chagalls. But none are more important—in terms of plot and character development—than Mary Cassatt’s “The Child’s Bath.”

A close second, in terms of importance, isn’t a painting. Rather, it’s a projected photo of a smiling African child, a photo taken by the other lead character, photojournalist Thomas Buckle—played by a weathered, rugged-looking Ronn Johnstone—on one of his numerous African excursions. (On Broadway, Thomas was played by Jeremy Irons.) It’s a picture that relates to a grief that he’s carrying around, a grief so heavy that he can no longer take photographs, although he spends a good deal of time on stage fidgeting with his camera.

(And this fidgeting – the audience is supposed to believe – is taking place while on the job as an employee of Katherine’s in her pricey gallery.)

Said images—a photograph and an Impressionist painting—set up the point and counterpoint in the lover’s quarrel with Katherine Keenan defending the position that impressionism is more true to life than realism and Thomas taking the opposite tack.

When Katherine asks the question, “Do you think life is intended to be Realism or Impressionism?”

And Thomas answers, “I'm a photographer. Life is not only Realism, it's Photorealism.”

Thomas recalls numerous Hemingway protagonists. But Hemingway would never have his characters undergo the Saul on the road to Damascus conversion that strikes Thomas, when he comes around to Katherine’s point of view late in the play. That is, Thomas not only sees the light, but he comes to see everything through a warm and fuzzy Impressionist glow. No, Hemingway would never write such a profound change in worldview on the drop of a dime. But Michael Jacobs—the writer/producer of that small-screen gem Charles in Charge—would have us believe that life doesn’t just imitate the art projected onto the stage walls. He would have us believe that life itself is sitcom.

And, speaking of sitcoms, certain details in this play are obscured by a warm, fuzzy, impressionistic fog. For one, where do these characters get the money to sit around all day idly with their idle chatter, given that paintings rarely sell from this gallery?

And given that Director Amy Hayes was working with a leaky ship of a script, it’s a pretty amazing thing that the play actually works on some levels. It is, after all, much more a romantic comedy—which requires some suspension of disbelief—much more than it is a serious drama. But much more importantly, Johnstone’s and Schlatter’s performances are particularly convincing and there is palpable chemistry between them. These performers also played alternate roles, in flashbacks that occur early in the play, so there were certainly ample opportunities to screw up an accent or a cue. But they didn’t come close.

In fact all the performances are solid, including that of Sophaia Prabhu-Hensley who plays Katherine as a young girl, in one of the flashback scenes.

And Kevin Johnson, a veteran of many Indy stage performances, does well very well with the two characters he plays – the bakery owner Mr. Linder and the Tanzanian Chiambuane. In fact, it’s pretty amazing that Johnson is able to do anything with the latter role at all, considering that it’s as thinly written and full of clichés as your typical coffee commercial.

Fortunately, the text of this play isn’t entirely botched: the actual argument that Katherine and Thomas have during the course of the play is somewhat engaging—the argument about the difference between Impressionism and Realism. And the discussion that Thomas and Katherine have with Mr. Linder and a young couple (played by Taylor Cox and Chelsea Anderson) about a painting entitled “Tomorrow She Finds Him Slumped Over” (painted by local artist Katie Burk) is particularly interesting.

The painting depicts an older couple seated on a park bench. They are seated some distance apart. Does this mean they don’t love one another anymore? Or does it mean they know each other well enough to give one-another space? It’s a fascinating argument because there are a number of equally valid interpretations to the meaning of this painting. There is, however, no authoritative interpretation, as Katherine would have it.

The unstated takeaway: good art and open-endedness go hand in hand because art often reflects life. (Sorry, Oscar Wilde.) This is, in fact, a point of view reinforced by the execution of this play. The fact that the performers breathe life into this wooden, sitcom stuff is a paradox, a minor miracle, something that speaks volumes of the talent out there on the Indy theatre circuit.

Wisdom Tooth Theatre Project’s Impressionism
Directed by Amy Hayes
Feb 11-13, 18-20 8 pm
Feb 14 5 pm.
See for tickets
Advance: $18, Adult: $20, Student/Senior: $12

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