‘Pictures From Home,’ Strong, Humorous, Heartfelt Performances Bring Depth and Nuance to Must-See Theater
How does one negotiate one’s upbringing as an adult, when one’s parents still keep them under their charge and supervision as a comforting mainstay of their relationship? How does one one respond, if the parents in their relationships with adult children default to roles of superior authority figure vs. inferior minor? The superb Pictures From Home raises and answers these questions.
Pictures From Home in its premiere at Studio 54, currently runs until April 30. Written by Sharr White (The Other Place), and directed by Bartlett Sher (To Kill a Mockingbird) it sports a tremendous all-star cast who inhabit the characters to the cellular level. The play, which encapsulates photographer Larry Sultan’s decades-long project, exploring his relationship with his parents through pictures, is a knockout. Based on Sultan’s titular photographic memoir (1992), White’s work unfolds as an intimate portrait of a family that challenges the audience to think about how we reconcile issues with our own parents that we know may never be resolved.
White’s depiction of Larry (portrayed with great sensitivity and aplomb by the marvelously versatile Danny Burstein) and his parents, as a memory play is largely thematic. The son, Burstein’s Larry perseveres in his project initially to learn about his life and relationship with his parents through the post-war pictures taken before and after they moved to Southern California. Of course his initial intentions change with the passing years he gets to know his parents from a different viewpoint.
In his quest to understand levels beyond surface identities, Larry chronicles the culture against the backdrop of family photos, videos. discussions and interviews during weekend visits (twice a month) from 1982-1992. Importantly, Burstein’s Larry discovers that the process of “information gathering” itself is wondrous, life-affirming and loving. He learns to live with the uncertainty that the truth about his and his family’s past and present is always shifting. Eventually, he realizes that this is an acceptable revelation that occurs despite his creating frustrations and annoyances for his parents and himself. Complications arise, as he explores other perspectives about them through what he hopes will become a “more objective” lens.
However, throughout the humorous and at times rancorous give and take sessions among son Larry, Dad Irving and Mom Jean (the inimitable Nathan Lane and Zoë Wanamaker) there is the inevitable acknowledgement that this is “their” family. For good or ill they have navigated the emotional and psychological shark infested waters and stuck by each other protected by an abiding, scratchy, blanket of love. Who is anyone to judge them? There’s a quote about glass houses and throwing stones somewhere in this production which White, the actors and director take out and shake up with chiding humor to “not point the finger too readily or heartily.” Judgment doesn’t apply, regarding this intimate enlivened portrait; in fact, it is disingenuous.
Indeed, we cannot look back in hindsight and determine accurately, Sharr White suggests as one of the themes of this clever production which sneaks up on you, if you allow it the grace to do so. At it strongest moments the presentation of the family dynamic, becomes like watching our own family dysfunctioning in real time. Larry’s motivations and intentions as he seeks out Irving’s and Jean’s approbation, insights and perspectives, and weathers his father’s criticism during the unfolding of the project, are right out of our own home movies. Not only are the interactions hysterical and funny, they are heartbreaking and identifiable, and at times searing.
If one is fortunate to have family, it is what all adult children (if they are honest) cannot really grasp in the fullness of its significance and meaning to their lives. We can’t even securely attribute our successes or failures to them because there is the ineffable mysterious that cannot be pinned down. And if one does attempt to acutely define what is undefinable and cover it with blame or calculation, it will be incomplete, misaligned and skewed by one’s own biases. Family relationships in all their warts, impurities and embarrassments are beautiful because they are attempts to get it right, Sharr White teases out of Larry Sultan’s photo memoir. The heartbreak of Larry, Irving and Jean is that with every imperfect interaction, they don’t quite hit the mark. That is the pain and that is the glory. At least they tried.
And just as Burstein’s Larry concludes by the end of the play (and project) and we concur as an audience watching the intimacies of what the photos reveal, family relationships, individual and combined, are infinitely complex. In that complexity, if grace is attempted, there is mirth in the clown car of family gatherings. You have to laugh. If you don’t find the humor, you weep, and of course in the humor, there has been much weeping and pain to allow it to rise to the levity of wit and wisdom.
As Larry explores and unravels each home movie or picture, discussing it with Jean and Irving, he chooses to accept and love as his parents have and still love, despite the sorrows and pains. Underneath there are happinesses. And this is a treasure worth more than the profits that Larry gains when he publishes his photo memoir which receives wide acclaim and Irving’s praise and the relief that his son’s visits have accomplished “something worthwhile.” The time spent with his parents and their generosity in allowing him to needle and prod them could never be fashioned any other way. The bond they form holds no regrets because in due season, as Wanamaker’s Jean underscores in the poignant scene with Burstein’s Larry, she can’t live forever, though in his child-like heart he wishes she could.
Of course we “get” her question to him, “Why would I want to?” That one of the reasons why Larry might be doing this project, to redeem the time with his parents, turns out to be his finest reason for its accomplishment. Wanamaker and Burstein render every nuance and feeling out of their scene together which is lovely and outright smashing.
Thomas Wolf proclaimed in You Can’t Go Home Again, that you can’t return to the past, for time’s momentum dissolves what was into inaccurate memory. Likewise, there is something greatly tragic in viewing photographs to jar one’s memories and find meaning which can never be fully realized. For the faded photographs often capture a brand, a statement to cover over truths with impressions. However, as a photographer whose life is made full attempting to capture timeless compositions, Burstein’s Larry eschews Wolf’s adjuration and tries to discover meaning and substance from the impressions. And he doesn’t quite succeed to his liking, yet it is magnificent that he tries.
Time and again he visits Jean and Irving, flying from his professorship, wife and children to his old homestead in Southern California (neatly effected by Michael Yeargan’s set design). As he interviews his parents and reviews again and again various photos from his childhood to capture the cultural zeitgeist and look for new interpretations of his life and parents beyond his memories from a child’s perspective, he concludes points, then argues with his father who disagrees with him. Ingeniously, he examines and reflects upon their poses, facial expressions, gestures, activities, captured in the still point, directing his parents toward a new interpretation. It is a humorous fact that the photos Larry selects for his book are precisely the ones that his parents and particularly his father dislike because they are not posed to perfection or portray a flattering image.
In the dialogue centering on the photos,White has given the actors the grist to take off into the amazing territory of nuance to bring out sub rosa emotions, defense mechanisms and disclosures from each family member. That Jean is not as forthcoming as her husband, but is nurturing and supportive of her son speaks volumes. She is wary and deeply loves and understands her husband’s weaknesses and defensiveness, though she gets fed up with him at times. He counts on her understanding and is the one to affirm his love for her toward the conclusion.
Through each of their interactions that represent the many visits from Larry, White creates vignettes that are thematic. In one when Lane’s Irving hysterically hobbles about with an injury we never learn how he received, the scene moves to an unexpected and poignant end-stop about aging. Lane’s Irving effects the emotional arc of the scene with incredible moment and a cry from the heart that is tremendously moving.
In another interaction Jean’s growing dementia is subtly revealed in her panic about where she put various items. From the beginning of the play to the conclusion, Wanamaker subtly reveals Jean’s worsening condition. If one is not focusing, one might miss this incredible aspect of her performance. Wannamaker reveals Jean’s memory decline, nervous fidgeting and sometime irascibility, which Lane’s Irving discounts in the latter scenes that represent the end of the decade. We understand why Irving prefers not to note this as we look at the photo projections of them dressed to the nine’s decades earlier. Though we laugh, we get the undertones when Irving asks why Larry can’t use this photo where Jean is just stunning and Irving is certainly her inferior in the looks department.
The photos and videos blown up and projected on the set’s back wall become the backdrop upon which the actors acutely portray these individuals so that we become acquainted with them as archetypes with whom we identify. Thanks to 59 Productions these are integral to the themes in the vignettes. And they make all the more vital and poignant the last lines of the play when we discover that Jean dies after they move to Palm Springs (something which Larry disapproved of more for himself than for his parents). And as Burstein’s Larry proclaims his father’s illness and his death, his last lines fade and a visual of the photographer Larry Sultan is projected. Larry and Irving died in the same year, 2009. One cannot help but be stirred looking at his beautiful picture as a crystallization of his ancestry and his honest tribute to his parents in text and photos and this play’s messages of love, family, “seizing the day” and “memento mori.”
Kudos to Jennifer Moeller (costume design) Jennifer Tipton (lighting design) Scott Lehrer and Peter John Still (sound design) and Tommy Kurzman (wig/hair and makeup design) and of course 59 Productions projection design for bringing to life with the actors’ prodigious efforts the director’s stunning vision..
Pictures From Home is a must-see for the performances, the themes, the direction, the complexity and nuance of the play itself. For tickets go to their website, https://picturesfromhomebroadway.com/