In 'to the yellow house,' a playwright unravels Van Gogh's 'great shattering'
The world premiere production of playwright Kimber Lee's new play runs at The La Jolla Playhouse through Dec. 12, 2021, exploring two mysterious years of Vincent van Gogh’s life.
Before playwright Kimber Lee wrote the first draft of "to the yellow house," she was barely emerging from a difficult period in her own life, but also increasingly aware of a deadline approaching.
She'd also recently read Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith's comprehensive biography on artist Vincent van Gogh, "Van Gogh: The Life."
"The thing that stayed with me was just learning about how many cycles of trying things and failing and trying again and failing again that he went through as he tried to find his way in life," Lee said. "And then after he decided to become a painter, those cycles continued where he would try things and it would not work out. But he would somehow find the resources within himself to pick himself up and start again, which was something that meant a lot to me at that particular time in my life."
Lee was specifically inspired by a two year period, 1886 to 1888, when van Gogh primarily lived in Paris, staying with his brother Theo. Theo van Gogh was an art dealer at the time, considerably more famous and respected in Paris than Vincent. In fact, a few of the other characters in the play sometimes refer to Vincent as "Theo's brother."
Much of what is known of Vincent's life is rooted in the letters he sent to Theo, Lee said. But 1886 to 1888 was the only period after their childhood that the brothers lived together, and didn't need to correspond by letter. Thus, those years are relatively undocumented in writings about the artist's life.
That combination of mystery, rock bottom and a playwright's deadline was the perfect storm for Lee, who wrote the first draft feverishly in a matter of days in 2015, then workshopped and developed it ever since.
Lee was part of the Lark new play lab, which announced in October that it would be closing permanently after its impressive 27 year history. All of Lee's recent plays (including "tokyo fish story," seen locally at The Old Globe in 2016) were developed at Lark.
"I have not fully processed that that place is not going to be there anymore. To be completely honest, it's something that I'm still having a great deal of difficulty with because it was my home in a way that no other artistic home exists for me," Lee said.
Artistic community was on Van Gogh's mind, too. When he moved to Paris in 1886, he struggled to befriend — and be taken seriously by — Paul Gauguin, Émile Bernard, Henri Toulouse-Lautrec and other notable artists of the era — many of whom make appearances in the play.
The story unfolds around Vincent (Paco Tolson) and his relationship with Theo (Frankie J. Alvarez), as well as his romance with cafe owner Agostino Segorati (Deidrie Henry).
"Those [relationships] also gave me places to kind of imagine things that might have happened. Things in the play are historically accurate — things that did happen. But I've played fast and loose with how they might have happened or the characters," Lee said.
The art in the play is atmospheric and out of reach for the audience. Iconic works like Van Gogh's "Starry Night" are teased in the set design's striking digital backdrops, but we never actually see it. When the play ends, it would still be one more year before he'd paint that, or before his notorious ear incident — and just two years before his suicide.
Vincent is broke, heartbroken and over-indulged with alcohol in 1888 when he leaves Paris for Arles, the home of the actual "yellow house" in the south of France, and soon thereafter, in 1889, Van Gogh begins to paint those famous works.
As the play moves toward this moment of starting over amid massive failure, the momentum of the play is palpable but quiet, dense and moody — almost mournful.
"The play brings him through great difficulty, through a moment of great shattering, to a place of quiet resolve and kind of starting over in the midst of uncertainty. He has no way of knowing that the paintings he's about to do are going to be some of the most famous paintings in the history of art," Lee said.
Lee praised the entire production team and cast, directed by Neel Keller, as well as the spirit of the Playhouse for pulling off an unusual play.
"It's not a small play. It's sort of very personal in terms of the story and the relationships and the narrative. But in terms of the staging, it is rather epic, as we've found. It just has required a ton of work and resources and all the talents of all the craftspeople who have built everything. And then just the willingness of the theater to say — despite the past 18, 19 months that we've all had in the American theater — we're going to go ahead and we're going to do this really ambitious show," she said.
Given that the Van Gogh Experience will come to San Diego's Del Mar Fairgrounds in January, this play feels like something of a pre-game, a brainy and contemplative antidote to the in-your-face immersion of that high-tech exhibit.
"The play brings him through great difficulty, through a moment of great shattering, to a place of quiet resolve and kind of starting over in the midst of uncertainty. He has no way of knowing that the paintings he's about to do are going to be some of the most famous paintings in the history of art."
As she wrote "to the yellow house," Lee's relationship with the troubled, ill-fated painter revolved around finding a way to keep going — and that's also the story she wants this play to tell.
"If we've done what we wanted to do throughout this production process, then the audiences who come will experience a really full story that will bring them to a place of quiet hope, and the quiet hope of starting over even amidst uncertainty," Lee said.