Creative playwriting is a blend of crafts. The dialogue must engage and the theatrical expression must entrance the audience.
These two outstanding qualities are evident in “O’KEEFFE!” – a nationally touring one-woman show coming to the Parks Playhouse, 1335 Gusdorf Road, Suite L. The limited run of performances is scheduled for Friday through Sunday (Sept. 5-7).
As its name indicates, “O’KEEFFE!” is a play about Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986), the iconic American artist. The format of the play has O’Keeffe speaking to the audience, recognizing that she is in a theater. In “real time,” the beloved painter relives scenes from her life and career that begin in 1915.
The character of O’Keeffe appears in this public forum to answer the question: Who is responsible for her success? Does she stand on her own merit as an artist? Or is her success the byproduct of her marriage to Alfred Stieglitz?
Playwright Lucinda McDermott has written the script so that O’Keeffe makes fun of the fact that she’s dead and supposed to be at peace. O’Keeffe says she has no regrets but wants to look at the choices she has made: Specifically, her marriage or her art; her marriage or New Mexico.
“I wrote the play for myself originally. I was the first actress to perform it and I toured in it for a number of years,” says McDermott. “Since 1995, the play has been published and is available for performance by other actresses.”
For the Taos production, actress Carolyn Wickwire plays the role of O’Keeffe. The press release notes that Wickwire began her acting career at age 50.
When asked what inspired Wickwire to begin a second career, she replies, “I had always loved acting. I worked at another career for 30 years to provide financial security. On nearing retirement, I could think of nothing else but doing what I had always loved.”
Wickwire explains that in 1967, she saw an exhibit of O’Keeffe’s work at the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, Texas. She was overwhelmed by the breadth and depth of the paintings. “When I decided to do a one-woman play, I immediately thought of Georgia O’Keeffe and was fortunate to discover this wonderful script by Lucinda McDermott,” she said.
Although O’Keeffe is the only character on stage (the setting is her studio), she “dialogues” with other unseen characters off-stage. For example, the character of O’Keeffe recounts some of the criticism she endured: “She’s only famous because her husband (Stieglitz) took those naked pictures of her!” Later, O’Keeffe explains that when Stieglitz first exhibited her flower paintings, a critic’s harsh words were: “One long, loud blast of sex!”
It is well-known that O’Keeffe resented the sexual interpretation of her work. In the play, she says, “you hung all your own associations with flowers on my flower, and you write about my flower as if I think and see what you think and see of the flower. And I don’t.”
Ouida White is the director of this show and says, “Lucinda has written a marvelous script –– demanding everything of one actor.” White explains that lighting, music, props and costume elements were chosen with care to assist Wickwire emotionally and physically on stage.
The two-act play runs for two hours with a 15-minute intermission. To meet the demands of this intelligent and challenging role, Wickwire runs at least part of the lines every day when she is not doing the show. She stays physically active and does a long warm-up prior to each performance. This includes vocal exercises, breathing, relaxation and a 20-minute speed run of part of the play.
White says that “Carolyn has a beautiful voice and we use every bit of it. It’s exciting to see one actor put it all on the line!”
O’Keeffe talks of first meeting Stieglitz (while she was an art student in New York) and points out that the age difference between them was 24 years. Although she loved her husband, O’Keeffe speaks of being suffocated by the art scene in New York City, as well as his overbearing family in Lake George, N.Y. After some bouts of relationship turmoil, O’Keeffe blurts out: “I don’t know where I’ll go. New Mexico. I don’t know. I only know that I must go.”
McDermott says this play is relevant to Taos because “it is a love letter to the land. I make it clear just how much Georgia O’Keeffe loved the land.” For example, in the play, O’Keeffe refers to New Mexico saying: “I am crazy in love with the sky out there.”
This is a wonderful show for anyone interested in this important 20th century artist –– and most especially if you think you know everything about her. Additionally, this is a creative tour de force of an acute human condition: ruminating on the past and reflecting on the choices we’ve made.
“I feel an obligation to understand O’Keeffe and to tell her story with as much emotional truth as possible,” says Wickwire.
Tickets are $20. Advance ticket purchase is highly recommended. Friday and Saturday performances are at 8 p.m. and Sunday is at 2 p.m.