Lawrence Toppman

‘Vincent’ combines art, heart and drama

James Briggs stars in the one-man play “Vincent,” about artist Vincent Van Gogh, often performing before projections of Van Gogh’s paintings.
James Briggs stars in the one-man play “Vincent,” about artist Vincent Van Gogh, often performing before projections of Van Gogh’s paintings. Courtesy of James Briggs

Most of us, hearing the name Vincent Van Gogh, have the image of a man incapable of happiness.

He fought everyone with whom he lived as as adult, from brother Theo to fellow artist Paul Gauguin. He lost his religious faith, though perhaps not his faith in God. He suffered from depression and mental illness, cutting off a piece of his ear and delivering it to a brothel he and Gauguin frequented, before dying of infection from a self-inflicted gunshot wound in 1890. (He was 37.)

The idea of spending 90 minutes with such a man might seem an invitation to unrelieved gloom. Yet “Vincent” proves that’s not so.

In the first place, it’s a monologue by Theo, who failed to speak at his brother’s funeral and now unburdens himself to us one week later. We hear Vincent’s words only through letters he sent his brother and learn almost as much about Theo, a loving apologist for the title character.

In the second place, we get a different take on the great Impressionist. In this telling – and who knows how much we can trust Theo? – Vincent is a perennial victim. When he became an evangelist, the church wouldn’t let him serve Belgian coal miners as he saw fit. His rigid parents refused to let him live with an alcoholic prostitute and her children, threatening to commit him as mentally unfit. People of Arles, misunderstanding his deep sadness, mocked and threw garbage at him.

The show at Stage Door Theater is presented as “Leonard Nimoy’s ‘Vincent.’” Nimoy wrote the teleplay for a 1981 TV movie, adapting the play “Van Gogh” by Phillip Stephens and starring as Theo. It’s hard to imagine Nimoy being more convincing than James Briggs, who gives a performance of quiet integrity.

With help from director Brant Pope, Brooks draws our sympathy toward both brothers. The art dealer, who consistently supplies money and encouragement, seems like a man trying to pull a horse out of quicksand: He feels the creature slip away, and the confused beast makes his plight worse by struggling.

Vincent’s lack of self-esteem prevents him from wanting to show paintings, yet he upbraids Theo for failing to sell any. Vincent rebuffs even admiring critics and makes foolish decisions that leave him without financial prospects.

The masterstroke of the show is that we see works projected on a screen at the back of the stage, including rare drawings. At one point, Theo falls silent, and we watch a montage of masterpieces over the music of Saint-Saens’ “The Swan.”

Several show Vincent’s wary, unsmiling self-portraits, including one frightening vision that hints at the fragile skull beneath the skin. At last, we also see the only portrait of Theo that Vincent painted: He, too, looks profoundly anxious, as if no one in this family was destined to know joy.

Toppman: 704-358-5232

‘Vincent’

Leonard Nimoy adapted this one-person play about artist Vincent Van Gogh; it’s taken from letters Vincent exchanged with brother Theo.

WHEN: Through April 12 at 7 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday.

WHERE: Stage Door Theater, Fifth and College streets.

TICKETS: $22-26.

RUNNING TIME: 85 minutes, one act.

DETAILS: 704-372-1000 or blumenthalarts.org.

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