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Never the less, tenderness: Outcast opens season with ‘Gertrude Stein and A Companion’
She had an exquisite eye for art.
She wrote books that stirred up controversy.
She was famously lesbian.
And Picasso and Hemingway, among other famous artists, found her utterly compelling.
There are any number of interesting and important tidbits about the life of writer Gertrude Stein.
One of the most significant, however, is what happened as a result of her meeting Alice B. Toklas.
“Gertrude Stein and A Companion,” a play by Win Wells and directed by K. Sandy O’Brien, is the season opener for Outcast Productions. It runs Jan. 13 to 21 at the little theater in the Fine Arts Building of the Island County Fairgrounds in Langley (full disclosure: this reporter is a cast member.)
The play begins just after the death of American writer Stein in 1946, whose ghost returns to visit her longtime companion Alice B. Toklas at their Parisian flat. From there, the genesis and development of their relationship is richly portrayed, mainly through humor. A note in the script makes it clear: “The humor must be stressed — not sentimentality or sadness.”
In that good-humored way, which also describes perfectly the personality of Stein, the play reveals some of the most personal scenes of the couple’s rich cultural life together in Paris between 1907 and 1967.
Stein, the experimental author, mentor to writers and collector of art — namely painters such as Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Georges Braque and Paul Cezanne, and the writers Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound, F. Scott Fitzgerald and others — became indebted to Toklas, a lifelong mate, who not only remained devoted to her memory and the life they shared, but was almost single-handedly responsible for publishing her books.
O’Brien said on first reading the piece she had not realized quite the depth with which the author explored what must have seemed a taboo relationship during the early part of the 20th century.
“It seems so long ago since I first read this play,” O’Brien said. Even with days, weeks and months focused on the play, something new emerges daily, she added.
“In the beginning, it was the flow of the play I liked, and the fact that it was about the relationship of two artistic women, who surely had to endure the drawbacks of just being women, let alone being a lesbian couple at that point in history.”
Wells captures the art, music and literature of Paris in those “Lost Generation” years, as well as the feeling of the extraordinary period when Picasso and Hemingway became frequent guests of the couple’s famous salons at their flat at 27 Rue de Fleurus.
But after exploring the play, O’Brien said the feminist aspect of these two women supporting and promoting the arts together became only one reason why she finally loves directing the play.
“It is a play about spousal love, support and giving,” O’Brien said.
And it’s good storytelling done with fine intellect and humor, O’Brien added.
“It is a glimpse behind the scenes of the soiree’s for which they’ve become famous,” she said.
Martha Murphy plays Alice.
“Alice is interesting because she is quiet and mostly in the shadow of Gertrude, but always keenly aware and observant,” Murphy said.
“They were a perfect fit — a balanced partnership of mutual respect. Alice did not need to be in the spotlight, but she thrived seeing Gertrude take that position. She was the catalyst for Gertrude’s success ... it was her life’s work.”
The play won first prize at both the Edinburgh Festival in Scotland and at the Theatre Festival in Sydney, Australia, among other “best play” awards, when Wells first introduced it. It opened in New York City at the Lucille Lortel Theatre in 1986, with Jan Miner in the role of Gertrude Stein and Marian Seldes playing Alice.
Stein’s most famous written line is “A rose is a rose is a rose,” which appeared in her poem “Sacred Emily” from her book, “Geography and Plays,” published in 1922. But some would argue that Stein’s most important contribution to the world of art was her eye for collecting art, and not her writing. She often used an experimental style, taking inspiration from Picasso’s Cubist period, and was often criticized for being nonsensical and too abstract.
She did, however, claim popular success from her “Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas,” her most widely read book.
Some applauded Stein’s chutzpah for ignoring convention.
In his introduction to Stein’s “Geography and Plays” the writer Sherwood Anderson wrote: “For me the work of Gertrude Stein consists in a rebuilding, an entirely new recasting of life, in the city of words. Here is one artist who has been able to accept ridicule, who has even forgone the privilege of writing the great American novel, uplifting our English speaking stage, and wearing the bays of the great poets to go live among the little housekeeping words, the swaggering bullying street-corner words, the honest working, money saving words and all the other forgotten and neglected citizens of the sacred and half forgotten city.”
Mabel Dodge, a wealthy American arts promoter and friend of Stein’s, recognized something special in her work, as well. She wrote:
“In Gertrude Stein’s writing every word lives and, apart from concept, it is so exquisitely rhythmical and cadenced that if we read it aloud and receive it as pure sound, it is like a kind of sensuous music.”
Ultimately, it was the Steins of Oakland, Calif. — Gertrude and her brothers Leo and Michael — who through their extraordinary ability to recognize talent, would go down in history for being responsible for the development of modern art in the early 20th century. It was her passion for excitingly beautiful paintings that Gertrude Stein is remembered today.
Back at rehearsal in Outcast’s little theater, O’Brien is satisfied by the work. It is a scene Gertrude would have truly appreciated as a mentor herself.
“As rehearsals are in process, I can sit back and listen to the actresses who play these dear characters and who have done incredible research and make me feel as if I truly am working with Gertrude and Alice,” O’Brien said. “I will watch as audiences discover what I have.”
To sum up the whole endeavor of producing art, O’Brien paraphrases a line from the play Alice uses to encourage Gertrude.
“It is praise and praise and praise that one needs to move ahead ... especially when it is deserved,” O’Brien said.
“Gertrude Stein and A Companion” also features original music composed and performed for recording by Aaron Simpson. Julie Cunha and O’Brien created the costumes; lights are by Alexander Wren; the sound is engineered by Jeffrey Fisher and Noelle Weiner is the show’s stage manager.
The show plays at 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, Jan. 13, 14, 20 and 21, at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 19 and at 2 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 15.
Tickets are $16 for adults and $12 for seniors and students and are available at www.brownpapertickets.com.
Visit www.outcastproductions.net for more information.