NANCE O’NEIL explores the intersection of art and notoriety.
Martin Denton, NYTheatre.com
Paulanne Simmons, CurtainUp
Sandy MacDonald, TheaterMania
Above and right: Rachel Brown and Jonna McElrath in the Blue Coyote Theatre Group production. Photos: Beau Allulli.
Maybe because (as I write this) I’ve just had a long conversation about SAD HOTEL, it occurs to me that NANCE O’NEIL is a version of a trick I’ve tried three times. SAD HOTEL was intended to be a Tennessee Williams about Tennessee Williams (or, to get really meta, a play Tennessee Williams might be writing about himself). A HOLE IN THE FENCE uses its Thornton Wilder stand-in, The Professor, as the Stage Manager in a kind of OUR TOWN run amok. And I modeled NANCE after the kind of psychological dramas that Nance O’Neil was appearing in: HEDDA GABLER and the much-lesser-known MAGDA. The legend of Lizzie Borden, of course, will exert a centripetal force on any production of the play, but my fascination was with Nance. Like most of us, her will to know herself is at war with her will to construct herself, and because she’s both an actress and an artist, she wants to construct herself beautifully, which makes knowing herself doubly hard. Which may be what I meant by one of my earliest notes when I began to imagine the play: it’s a play about the Mistakes of Art.