Albee’s premise for Occupant is deceptively simple. A character known simply as “The Man” posthumously interviews the ghost of ground-breaking sculptor Louise Nevelson. You would think such an exchange would be straightforward, and in some ways it is. Using a set (by Nick Brethauer) that features some of Nevelson’s sculptures and music reminiscent of PBS talk shows from the 70’s, Occupant asks the sort of questions we might expect, before delving into what might be construed as intrusive. In the world we currently inhabit, it’s hard to imagine any inquiry that exceeds the lines of propriety. Celebrities discuss deeply personal issues without batting an eye, and interviewers are allowed latitude past polite evasion. The difference in Occupant is Nevelson’s interrogator, while certainly not aggressive, has an annoying habit of responding with passive disdain. If you say so, or Whatever you say. This sort of thing. Sometimes Nevelson takes the bait, and sometimes she doesn’t. Sometimes she’s appalled by his sheer audacity.
Nevelson’s first response is surprise the host needs to tell the audience who she is, as if nobody has heard of her phenomenal career. I think the allure of this piece is that Edward Albee wants to tap the core of what made Nevelson unique. Occupant was published in 2001 and we can only speculate if the trend away from deferentially laudatory biographies (though respectful) had begun at that time. Albee doesn’t use any of the predictable hocus-pocus you might expect from a drama that includes a deceased character. There seems to be a very wide discrepancy between how Nevelson wants to be remembered and the sometimes tawdry, often painful details that The Man persistently seeks. Nevelson repeatedly struggles to maintain her composure when he catches her off guard, and is certainly not above lambasting him with an impassioned Fuck off.
Behind the interviewer’s desire to avoid strewing garlands at Nevelson’s feet, and her refusal to be degraded in front of strangers, lies the question of how much does a famous success owe their public, and how does anyone (even a genius) forgive themselves, with all their ghastly flaws? A female celebrity was probably a better choice. Notorious examples, such as Hitchcock, Einstein and Picasso probably had little problem granting atonement to themselves. Being men. Nevelson discusses her failures as a mother, and her infidelities. But grudgingly. Albee seems to be aiming to show the woman, the brilliant, quirky, defiantly unique artist, with her strange worldview and regrettable mistakes. Nevelson comes off as achingly human. But then, we also begin to grasp the chutzpah it took her to break out and shock the world, as any significant sculptor must.
Occupant plays October 5th-21st, 2017. WingSpan Theatre Company. The Bath House Cultural Center. 521 East Lawther Drive, Dallas, Texas 75218. 214-675-6573. www.wingspantheatre.com