By Carol Rocamora . . . 

If, as they say, a picture is worth a thousand words, then Sharr White’s new play is priceless. Pictures from Home, his overwhelmingly moving new work that just opened at Studio 54, is a father and son story that matches Willy and Biff Loman’s (in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman) in its emotional power and intensity. And that’s saying a lot, in the context of the American theater.

Set in the late 1980s, the play tells the story of Larry Sultan, a photography professor at California College of the Arts who’s in his mid-forties. He’s now in his eighth year of a special project—researching his parents, their lives, and their relationship with him through past photos and new ones. Though newly married and with a child of his own, Larry makes weekend visits to his parents’ house two or three times a month, sorting through a box of old family photos and reels, studying them intensely, and taking new snapshots of his parents. “I’m looking for something I can’t name or see, but know that it’s there,” Larry (a heartbreaking Danny Burstein) explains to us. “This is about me seeing something that they can’t.”

Danny Burstein

So his parents—Irving (the one-of-a-kind Nathan Lane) and Jean (the demure Zoë Wanamaker)—tolerate his visits and begrudgingly engage in their son’s obsession. “What are you looking for?” Irving inquires irritably, as his son barrages them with endless questions about his father’s life and his parent’s marriage. “The life beyond the frames,” replies Larry.

And oh, does Larry succeed. In two intermission-less, spellbinding hours, Larry learns a great deal about his father’s past: Irving’s frustration as a Brooklyn resident in a fourth-floor walk-up, working as a clothing salesman (the Willy Loman similarity); his journey west to start a new life; his name-change to avoid anti-Semitism (it’s the early 50s); his subsequent success as a razor-blade salesman for Schick; and, his ultimate achievement of “the American Dream” (which Willy never attained). The marvelous projections on the upstage theater wall of Larry and his two brothers growing up in sunny California are almost too sunny to be true. That’s just what Larry seeks to find: the truth behind those images.

Danny Burstein, Zoë Wannamaker, Nathan Lane

Larry’s persistence in finding that so-called “truth” is what irks his father. As Larry keeps digging deeper into his parents’ past and present, he uncovers a marriage fraught with competition (as it turns out, Jean was a more successful salesperson in real estate than Irving was in either job). Larry also provokes his parents into bickering—of the kind that would fill any long-term marriage, but which Larry nonetheless continues to exacerbate. Irving ultimately reveals his frustration with retirement, his dread of aging, his affairs while on trips (like Willy Loman, again), as well as his anxious impatience over Jean’s forgetfulness (they are now both in their seventies).

The tension between father and son escalates to a breaking point. Larry accuses his father of being “driven by the image of success,” Irv calls Larry a loser. Ultimately the true purpose of this study is revealed, of which Larry is unaware until the play’s penultimate moment. “Why are you here?” asks Irving, before finally getting an answer. “I’m afraid,” says Larry, realizing that this “research project” is ultimately a search for his own identity. “I want you to live forever!” Larry confesses to his mother. The photos, he ultimately discovers, are his way to “stop time.”

Zoë Wannamaker

Speaking of photos, what makes the production so powerful are the pictures and the reels that are constantly projected on the back wall of Michael Yeargan’s marvelous set (the living room of the parents’ home, awash in California sunlight). These nostalgic images (by 59 Projections) evoke in us our own memories of growing up—or at least what we would have wished it to look like. They provide a backdrop to three of the most outstanding performances on Broadway this season—and, under Bartlett Sher’s expert, sensitive direction, the results are overwhelming. As the play’s narrator, Danny Burstein’s Larry is aching in his vulnerability, and his direct addresses to the audience between confrontations with his parents are both engaging and deeply touching. As for Nathan Lane . . . what can one say about his priceless portrayal except that it is simply wonderful. Lane summons up a lifetime achievement of perfect comedic timing to deliver a tour de force performance, illustrating what Chekhov famously called “laughter through tears.” Lane’s routines of posing for his son’s photos and demonstrating his new “limp” will have you in stitches (and praying that the production will be videotaped for posterity). As for Zoë Wanamaker, her understated, unsentimental performance balances the trio beautifully, allowing her delivery of the play’s final insights to land so powerfully and poignantly. “Sooner or later you just have to go,” she says to her son Larry, referring to her mortality as well as her son’s need to finally grow up and move on from his “project.” 

Danny Burstein, Nathan Lane, Zoë Wannamaker

“Whose truth is it?” is the question that is posed over and over, as the characters observe these photos over a two year period, until the parents finally move to Palm Desert (not “Palm Springs,” Irving keeps insisting). 

Meanwhile, there’s another truth here that needs to be uncovered—and that is why Sharr White wrote Pictures From Home in the first place. It’s because it is a true story. White first encountered Larry Sultan’s acclaimed photo memoir of his family at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2015. It is Larry’s true story of his ten year project; and as White explains in the program notes: “This play is my exploration of Larry’s exploration.” With its direct audience addresses, clear dramatic structure (scenes are titled on the backdrop), and unforgettable photos taken by Sultan of his family, White’s play is a fine achievement in the theater—augmented by memorable acting and directing.

As for the impact of Pictures from Home, I recall my own father telling me of how he wept at the opening night of Death of a Salesman on Broadway in 1949. Judging from the tearful audience members seated around me in last Saturday’s preview, Pictures from Home will elicit that same universal response. True to Larry Sultan’s photo memoir, Sharr White’s play is a celebration of a life, of family, and the most important truth of all: namely, love.

Pictures From Home. Through April 30 at Studio 54 (254 West 54th Street, between Broadway and Eighth Avenue). 

Photos: Julieta Cervantes