In a well-acted production at Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre, British playwright Nicholas Wright’s “Vincent in Brixton” proves to be a thoughtful, poignant speculation on relationships that might have affected the young Vincent Van Gogh at a London boarding house in 1873.
Wright uses as his point of departure letters written by Van Gogh that indicate he was smitten with the landlady’s daughter, but the five-character drama ultimately becomes a complex meditation on love as a potent force — explosive enough to alter lives, but too fragile to endure.
Vincent, as played by Seth Jones, is alternately charming, abrasive and painfully awkward. He has a way of speaking his mind and asking direct questions that go beyond the bounds of propriety. The play shows us glimpses of the artist’s mental illness to come and his ultimate need to escape from emotional complications he can’t manage.
Van Gogh, sent to London as an employee of the international art dealership Goupil & Cie, arrives at his future residence on a Sunday, where the landlady, Ursula Loyer (Shelley Wyche), is preparing dinner. Despite misgivings, Ursula agrees to take Vincent as a boarder.
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Ursula, who runs a school for young children, is a handsome widow with her own complicated inner life. Industrious but moody, she sees something in the young Vincent that appeals to her, even after he blurts that he is in love with Ursula’s daughter, Eugenie (Elise Poehling). Eugenie, it seems, is more interested in another boarder — Sam Plowman (Kenneth Wigley), a young workman with artistic talent.
As Vincent’s stay at the boarding house stretches from weeks to months, his initial obsession with Eugenie fades but he finds a new object for his ardor — her mother. Ursula, dumbfounded by his admission of love, finds herself responding to the young man’s passion in a way she would have not thought impossible.
Jones, thin and ethereal as Vincent, and Wyche, stolid and intelligent as Ursula, absolutely sell the love affair between young artist and middle-aged widow. Their performances are so good, so layered, that I never found myself doubting their credibility. The actors, working under director Karen Paisley, achieve something you don’t really see too often in theater — convincing passion.
Their love, inevitably, ends in sadness, but with a glint of hope — and a recognition that it was a spiritual connection that bound them together.
Poehling turns in a convincing, workmanlike performance as Eugenie — caught between devotion to her mother and her own romantic longings for Sam. The working-class painter with frustrated artistic ambitions, Sam becomes a vivid, quietly believable character in Wigley’s memorable performance. Late in the play, Elise Campagna appears as Vincent’s younger sister, a maniacal house cleaner who has utterly misread Vincent’s romantic situation. Despite an accent that sounds forced, Campagna’s performance is impressive.
Erica Sword’s costumes and Sarah White’s scenic design serve the production well, as does Paisley’s lighting.
There’s nothing in Wright’s script that demands to be cut, because he doesn’t waste words. But in performance the play feels long. That could be a pacing problem that will be fixed during the run. Regardless, this is a show that gives you plenty to think about it.