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Reflections on ‘The Gardener’by Lanie Robertson, With a Stellar Cast in its World Premiere Online

Stacy Keach Zoom Theater, the “good friends of Lincoln Center Theater” is offering a free virtual event to benefit The Actor’s Fund. The world premiere of Lanie Robertson’s magnificent play The Gardener is streaming live until February 18, 2021 on this link. https://www.stacykeachzoomtheater.com/

Nymphéas (Water Lilies) at Musée de l’Orangerie (courtesy of the site)

Starring Ed Harris as Claude Monet, Stacy Keach as the Prime Minister of France, Georges Clemenceau, and Amy Madigan as Monet’s stepdaughter Blanche, the playwright spins out the days which become the turning point in the lives of Monet and Clemenceau as they reaffirm the closeness of their relationship as good friend,s who inspire each other to benefit the culture and world around them.

Robertson begins the play identifying elements that essentially intimate the cultural times in which both men, lived though not through specific dates. The chronology is abstruse. For example Monet has lost his wife Camille and his son, Jean which has devastated him. And he refers to these events and their impact on him as does his stepdaughter Blanche. At the top of the play we follow the discussion that Clemenceau has survived an assassination attempt which identifies the time around 1919 after WWI. After the assassination attempt which Monet and Blanche believe killed Clemenceau, he turns up jocularly alive to visit Monet. The painter is at Giverny, Monet’s studio and garden, which he is planting and developing and to which Monet refers as his true legacy.

Ed Harris as Monet in ‘The Gardener,’ written by Lanie Robertson, directed by Stacy Keach, (courtesy of Stacy Keach Zoom Theater)

Interestingly, Clemenceau doesn’t “get the love” Monet expresses about the flora and fauna of the garden environs which Monet works day and night, and has come to know as intimately as he knows his paint’s thickness on his variety of brushes. Clemenceau claims he prefers the city noises, uproar and busyness of street hustle and bustle and his life as a politician, journalist and Prime Minister of France.

Much is subtext and inference in this play which draws one into the mystery of these two icons. It may force one to look up more information about the time, Monet’s greatest of masterpieces and this statesman of France who was prickly, Republican (in the French sense of the word) a humanist, Monet’s good friend and lover of art. I cannot imagine a better selection of cast than Amy Madigan, Ed Harris and Stacy Keach who also acutely directed this vibrant production.

Amy Madigan as Blanche, Monet’s stepdaughter, in ‘The Gardener’ by Lanie Robertson, directed by Stacy Keach (courtesy of Stacy Keach Zoom Theater)

Of course though Clemenceau could not have foreseen the romance of Giverny for global tourism and posterity, art lovers and professionals alike understand the importance of Giverny’s gardens to Monet’s final works; the garden informed his painting and provided the inspiration and respite to innovate and be energized to the muses of the creative process. Thus, both Monet’s garden and his works have become synonymous with Monet’s complicated genius and artistry.

Monet’s painting of Giverny house and studio (courtesy of Stacy Keach Zoom Theater)

What is intriguing about Robertson’s The Gardener, which heightens this interplay of Monet’s artistic talent being dependent upon his skill as a gardener, is the vitality of Monet’s relationship with Clemenceau. Again, this is inferred as the great unspoken. It was Clemenceau who after Monet died, arranged for the display of Monet’s Nymphéas (Water Lilies) cycle which eventually ended up in 1927 at Orangerie, now Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris, France. Clemenceau understood the greatness of Monet’s intention to symbolize the hope of peace, and healing power of nature, light and solace of the garden to soothe and renew the souls of soldiers who returned emotionally and psychically deadened after the hellish abyss of WWI. Clemenceau’s attraction to Monet’s work and friendship, was reaffirmed in 1908 and lasted to the end of their lives. Robertson suggests Clemenceau sought Monet and his work for its power to revitalize and restore his being. The friends’ connection lies beyond the veil, in an ineffable, immutable bond. And if one investigates further, theirs was an agreed upon arrangement that was fated for all time.

Nymphéas (Water Lilies) at Musée de l’Orangerie (courtesy of the site)

What is not spoken of in the play, Robertson alludes to and the brilliant actors convey, inhabiting these iconic individuals. It is Monet’s Water Lilies masterpiece that he worked on for three decades and to which Clemenceau encouraged him to add panels. The day after the Armistice in 1918 was when Monet asked Clemenceau to take two panels which he signed on Victory day and offer them to the State. Clemenceau was the intermediary to have Monet’s “great decoration” displayed in the way Monet wanted, a display that he finalized the conceptualization of right after his son Jean died. Thus, when Harris as the bereft Monet discusses Jean’s death with Clemenceau and the sonorous and vital Amy Madigan as Blanche expresses her grandfather’s great grief and hers at Jean’s loss, we understand why Monet sent away everyone from his home. We understand his need to be alone for his final work to be finished. We understand (sorry for the spoiler alert) why Blanche leaves with Clemenceau. It is for the greatness of what is to come; and all contributed in their way to its becoming.

(L to R): Stacy Keach as Clemenceau, Ed Harris as Claude Monet in ‘The Gardener,’ a World Premiere (courtesy of Stacy Keach Zoom Theater)

This “becoming” achieved its final form in the arrangement of the panels in the Orangerie as a panoramic frieze exhibited seamlessly to embrace the viewer in two elliptical rooms. The two panels at Clemenceau’s suggestion grew to 8, though Monet pledged more. But these 8 are the apotheosis of the Water Lilies cycle that Monet had begun thirty years before. He meant it to be his final contribution to the uplifting of France and perhaps for all time and for all of the world, as a monument to peace.

It has been said that Clemenceau encouraged Monet to create a total of 19 paintings some of which Monet destroyed. Indeed, Monet held them all back, hoping to achieve greater and greater perfection until he could work on them no longer, and his death released the paintings to Clemenceau in 1926. In1927 Clemenceau secured the 8 panels to establish the exhibit which is the impressionist’s monumental achievement, not necessarily appreciated nor understood by the public in 1927 or the next decade.

Nymphéas (Water Lilies) at Musée de l’Orangerie (courtesy of the site)

However, when one visits the Musée de l’Orangerie, one experiences the arrangement of Monet’s unique vision of form and color in a watery landscape that is sprinkled with waterlilies, shimmering ripples, willow branches, tree and cloud reflections, varying shades of light and dark green vegetation, all suggesting the ethereal qualities of light and air. Symbolized beautifully is the thread of life these natural elements that were conceived in Monet’s consciousness and then manifested in his garden which, for as long as it remains, imbues the eternal as does the “great decoration.”

Monet’s lily pond at Giverny (courtesy of the site)

Monet said about his creation, it is the “illusion of an endless whole, of a wave with no horizon and no shore.” Assuredly, the “elliptical shape of the rooms” suggests the mathematical symbol for infinity. The panels are a seamless continuum in time and space materialized. Likewise, Monet conceptualized his garden, planted, watered and cultivated the rich soils to express a beauty which he materialized using his vast array of knowledge of florals and accompanying plants to align the inner eye with the infinite, the eternal. His Garden and Monet’s exhibit in Musée de l’Orangerie are nonpareil.

This production is broadly relevant in its themes and scope. What better way to memorialize the message to remain uplifted through art in our time of mob violence at the Capitol, the horrifying insurrection against democracy, a noxious political divide and a pandemic. What could be better than to view the exchanges between two exceptional actors portraying cultural giants looking back to a similar time (the aftermath of the brutal WWI and the Spanish flu epidemic) as they worked to bring the hope of peace through the halo of artistic expression.

Monet’s lily pond at Giverny (courtesy of the site)

Harris, Keach and Madigan give brilliant performances re-imagining individuals we are barely acquainted with but know culturally. Memorable is Madigan’s humorous taking down of Harris’ Monet when as Blanche, she is outraged that Monet gives her pate to the cats, the sumptuous pate that she slaved. Her specific and factual description of what it took to make pate back in the day is marvelous. The actors convey the humanity of these greats at a still point in time that allows us to identify, engage and appreciate their friendship and the value of such friendships in times of great trouble.

The messages, themes and parallels of that time to this carry great relevance and currency for us today. Bravo and thanks to Robertson, Harris, Keach, Madigan and the creative team for this superb and unforgettable zoom theater experience. To see it CLICK HERE. https://www.stacykeachzoomtheater.com/ IT ENDS ON FEBRUARY 18, 2021. You will be happy you did. And after you finish watching, donate to The Actor’s Fund, CLICK HERE

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