by Alix Cohen
Mary Cassatt (1844-1926) was born into a wealthy Pennsylvania family who valued culture and traveled extensively. Determined to be an artist, she studied at The Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, then lived in Paris, already acquainted with the city, fluent in the language. Cassatt is best known for sensitive images of women, especially those depicting bonds of mother and child. She was, in every sense, a lady.
Parisian Edgar Degas (1837-1917), also from a conservative, well heeled background, quickly eschewed law school for The Ecole des Beaux-Arts. The artist created paintings, sculpture, prints and drawings with depictions of the ballet a particular signature. Often considered the founder of Impressionism, Degas hated the term, referring to himself always as a “realist.” His reputation for misogyny, arrogance, and criticism without boundaries was notable.
In Christopher Ward’s slice of life piece, Cassatt has invited the much admired Degas to look at her work. She’s been exhibited in the prestigious, establishment Salon and appears to have a solid sense of self. (The Salon was the official art exhibition of the Académie des Beaux-Arts between 1748 and 1890.) “Mr. Degas must be a gentle and caring man,” Cassatt innocently presumes based on empathy his work suggests.
Degas arrives. Conversation is brief. He’s dismissive of her praise of Manet, says nothing about displayed work, and corrects her terminology. “I am an Independent, what I do is a reflection of the Great Masters…” Surely having garnered some small success, she’ll return to America? “Certainly not!” is her fuming response.
Surprisingly, Degas returns unannounced the following day with faint excuse for every rendered slight. It seems he does like her work. In fact, he’s there to invite Cassatt to join a group of artists calling themselves “Independents” who will mount their own outsider exhibition. Monet, Pissarro, Renoir, Cezanne, Degas …Showing with them, however, means she’ll no longer be welcome at the Salon. Cassatt doesn’t hesitate.
His respect perhaps grudging, the pair enter into camaraderie, regularly seeing one another, exhibiting together. As part of “his” group, she can sit in a café where women are otherwise frowned upon. Technique is discussed. Degas teaches Cassatt printmaking. They plan to found a journal together (Les Jours et Les Nuits), but he lets the idea peter out.
We see Degas appreciate Cassatt’s style and demeanor, but ignore her almost blatant offer of affection. (Neither artist is historically paired with anyone, neither married.) Disappointed, she nonetheless values the relationship highly and backs up with grace. The credible moment is conjecture. Not a single letter or personal reference exists beyond his painting her several times. Viewing one of these, she protests, “You find beauty everywhere, why not in me?” There’s no whine in the phrase. Cassatt is dedicated, smart, and answers his many criticisms. He likes her spirit. Degas mentored her, but experts agree she influenced him.
Christopher Ward’s play is comprised of a series of vignettes/visits over time. It has great charm. He’s clearly researched both characters, giving us a glimpse into opinions and activities with and without one another, adding color with excerpts of her letters home. An epilogue ends the piece affectionately. In fact, Cassatt saw to it Degas was cared for at the end.
Direction is excellent. Stage business is kept to a realistic minimum. Both artists are proper, bearing refined. Cassatt is watchful, while Degas remains offhand and clip, yet unspoken esteem is apparent. One note: looking at a painting, even in passing, something should catch a character’s eye.
Andre Herzegovitch bears a striking resemblance to the young Degas, Natasa Babic looks somewhat like Mary Cassatt. Both actors have an unusually European vibe adding to believability. They seem to listen and formulate response. Withholding appears habitual rather than stiff. Ease in company pervades.
Costumes (Deborah Burke) are splendid. Every piece is attractive, correct, beautifully detailed, and fresh looking.
Note to prop master: Mounted images of the painting are way, way too small. Easels are set too low.
Production Photos by Russ Rowland
Written and Directed by Christopher Ward
Jerry Orbach Theater
Theater Center 210 West 50th Street
Through November 10, 2019, Run time 1 hr. 30 min.