When Susan Rome bats her eyelashes—as she often does in Edward Albee’s Occupant, now at Theater J—she becomes Louise Nevelson, the iconic sculptor whose life and work were inseparable.
The lashes, consisting of two layers of ultrafine sable, serve as a mask and a conduit.
Donning them—and donning the role, which she has researched for months—Rome is literally subsumed into the character she portrays.
“I am not doing an impersonation of Louise Nevelson,” Rome said. “I disappear into this role. And I occupy it, just as Nevelson occupied the role she so elaborately played in real life.”
In fact, the sculptor—whose regal bearing and grandiosity often belied reality—saw little difference between making up facts and putting on false eyelashes or a designer coat.
Rome perfectly captures Nevelson’s flamboyance as well as the bravado behind it. According to John Stoltenberg’s review (click here), she “commands the stage with a spontaneity, grandiosity, and luminosity that would make Auntie Mame and Mama Rose consider retirement.”
Edward Albee, who wrote the play 13 years after Nevelson’s death, deliberately put his name in the title. He intended it as a tribute to the artist, and to the triumph of illusion over reality.
As a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and one of the world’s leading dramatists, Albee understood that truth is often simply a basis for invention.
Nevelson, too, was an inventor. She invented her own persona, just as she invented her own art, much of it created from cast-off wood and pieces of metal.
In New York, when she lived in Soho—long before the neighborhood became fashionable—she would walk around, even in rain or sleet, in a floor-length chinchilla coat. With a turban over her hair, she towered over other people, as monumental a figure as one of her sculptures.
“This role scared me,” Susan Rome told me in a telephone interview before the play opened.
“Louise Nevelson was not a warm or generous person. She was larger than life. And she had a compulsion to create.” That compulsion often outweighed other considerations.
According to Rome, Nevelson was interested in very little outside her art and her comfort.
“I think such characters are rough. But nice people—people who are warm and kind and caring—are less interesting,” Rome explained, adding that while she admired Nevelson’s devotion to art, she did not admire the person.
“I love her, as a character on stage. But I’m not sure I would have liked her if we’d met,” she said, pointing out that although the artist was narcissistic, she was not malignant or malicious. “She simply assumed that she was ‘special,’ and therefore more important than anyone else.”
Rome is used to playing ‘rough’ roles. When she won the Helen Hayes Award in 2018, it was for the role of Kate Jerome in Brighton Beach Memoirs. “Kate Jerome was another woman who—like Louise Nevelson—did not have a generous spirit,” she said.
Occupant begins with Nevelson’s childhood. Growing up in Maine as Leah Berliowsky—a Yiddish-speaking immigrant whose family had arrived from Russia when she was six—the young artist was convinced that she was “special.” She was showered with art and music lessons.
Marriage to Charles Nevelson, a member of a wealthy Jewish family, allowed her to escape to New York, where, by her own admission, she was a “rotten mother” and a disaffected wife. She had few friends, and was extraordinarily selfish.
As part of her preparation for the role, Rome asked a psychologist about her. “He theorized that she was traumatized as a child,” she told me, adding that Nevelson, who was three at the time, believed that her father had abandoned the family when he left for America. She did not believe that he would send for them eventually, which he did.
Albee experienced the same sense of abandonment. In his case, it was the result of his biological parents giving him up for adoption. That sense of abandonment may account for the isolation in which both of them lived.
“Usually,” Rome added, “there is a line between the person and the persona. But in this case, the line is blurry. The mask and the person are the same. Nevelson became a celebrity.”
Featured on the cover of Life magazine, she was on the “best dressed” list well into her 70s. At age 87, she was still accepting commissions. (Two of her finest works—both here in the DC area—were commissioned, and completed, during her final years.)
“Art was her world. It took the place of relationships with family and friends,” Rome said. In order to understand the act of creation, she went to the Theater J Scene Shop, where the set for Occupant was made, and actually constructed a wooden tower of her own. She described it as an exhilarating experience.
Prior to the interview, I ran into Rome—along with Adam Immerwahr, artistic director of Theater J, and Aaron Posner, who directed Occupant—at Footlights DC, an informal group of theater enthusiasts who meet once a month to hear about contemporary plays in DC.
Immerwahr kicked off the meeting by pointing out that Occupant is not a biography. In that respect, he added, it’s similar to Becoming Dr. Ruth, a one-woman play performed by Naomi Jacobson, which Theater J is reviving in March 2020. (Click here for DCMTA’s review in 2018, and here for my interview with Dr. Ruth herself.)
“Both plays are about self-invention,” Immerwahr explained. “Both use the device of having the central character tell her own story, and both have the character speak directly to the audience.”
For Rome, it’s the women themselves who are most alike. “Both share a cultural heritage, both suffered childhood trauma, and both settled ultimately in New York, where they turned themselves into celebrities.” (Dr. Ruth, who teaches psychology at Columbia, became a sex expert on talk radio.)
(One more thing they have in common—which most people don’t know—is that both won the Shofar Awards, given out annually by Central Synagogue for ‘a life’s work that exemplifies the principles and beliefs of Judaism.’ Nevelson’s award was in 1986, and Dr. Ruth’s was in 2008.)
“My advice to theatergoers,” said Posner, at the same Footlights meeting, “is see the play.” But he admonishes people to look, first, at Nevelson’s work—on-site, in books or in the photos attached to this article.
Back to Susan Rome and her concluding thoughts on Occupant:
“Acting is not brain surgery,” she said. “But I am humbled that I can do this.”
I disagree. Acting, like surgery, requires perseverance, faith, and remarkable skill. But humble or not, I’m glad she did it, and glad that we—the audiences of 2019—have been given this chance to see Nevelson and Albee come alive in such an exuberant production.
Running Time: Two hours, including one intermission.
Edward Albee’s Occupant plays through December 8, 2019, at Theater J in the newly renovated Aaron and Cecile Goldman Theater, located inside the Edlavitch DC Jewish Community Center, 1529 16th Street NW, Washington, DC. For tickets, call 202-777-3210 or go online.
Postscript: Two of Nevelson’s most towering structures are in the Washington, DC area. The best-known of these is Sky Landscape, commissioned by the American Medical Association in 1983. It stands outside AMA headquarters on Vermont Avenue.
Sky Horizon (below) at the National Institute of Health in Bethesda was constructed in 1986, when Nevelson was 87 years old. Commissioned in honor of the NIH centennial the following year, it stands 30 feet tall and is made of nonreflective steel.