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In Albee's 'Occupant,' A Deceased Sculptor Defends Her Legacy


The playwright Edward Albee created iconic characters in "Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?" and in his other works. They were often argumentative, even obnoxious. The heroine of Albee's last produced play is now dominating Washington's Theater J. Here's more from NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg.


JONATHAN DAVID MARTIN: (As Man) Ladies and gentlemen, the great American sculptor, Louise Nevelson.

SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: She enters, gorgeous in her extravagant, dramatic clothes - ropes of huge beads, loose tops with vivid patterned, head wrapped in a scarf and eyes you can't ignore. It's the lashes - thick. Fur.


SUSAN ROME: (As Louise Nevelson) Sable - I'm wearing two sets right now.

STAMBERG: Susan Rome plays Nevelson.

ROME: I think that Louise is fascinating and enormous and inspiring. But I bet she was absolutely exhausting to be around.

STAMBERG: Here's what the real Louise sounded like, on CBS TV, inspecting places where a sculpture of hers might be located.


LOUISE NEVELSON: The other sites - if you'll excuse me - are ugly, and they stink.

STAMBERG: Outrageous - a Jewish kid from a shtetl outside Kyiv who grew up in Maine and became one of the most important sculptors of the 20th century.

AARON POSNER: She created her work; she created herself.

STAMBERG: Director Aaron Posner.

POSNER: So everything is true-ish...


POSNER: ...And fictional-ish and complicated and multilayered and multileveled and multishaded.

STAMBERG: Louise Nevelson fascinated her good friend Edward Albee, considered the top playwright of his generation. He wrote this play about her 20 years after she died. He called it "Occupant." Why? When she was dying, visitors swarmed her hospital room. She protested.


EDWARD ALBEE: She said, I don't want my name on the door like that. Well, what name would you like to have on there, Louise? And she said, occupant.

STAMBERG: The play is a ghost story. Nevelson comes back from the dead to defend her legacy. She's interrogated by Man, a nameless interviewer played by Jonathan David Martin.

MARTIN: He holds the place of all the men in her life in a way. She's in a world, especially in the mid-20th century, in the art world, that was very male-dominated.

STAMBERG: And there was sculptor Nevelson putting together pieces of wood.


ROME: (As Louise Nevelson) I was wandering around one day.

STAMBERG: Again, Susan Rome as Nevelson.


ROME: (As Louise Nevelson) And I saw some wood lying in the street, discarded stuff. And I said, oh, that looks nice. And so I cut it at home, and I put it in my studio.

STAMBERG: Next day, same thing - she spotted more wood.


ROME: (As Louise Nevelson) Broken chairs, banisters, flat pieces - anything - and I'd collect it.

STAMBERG: Filled her house. What to do with it?


ROME: (As Louise Nevelson) And suddenly, I knew. Why don't I stand it all up, make it vertical?

STAMBERG: And then paint it all black or all white, some gold, like abstract totem poles. They made her famous after decades of oblivion, a nervous breakdown, rejection.

POSNER: She was well into her 50s before things began to really click for her.

STAMBERG: She became a superstar, with pieces in the major museums and friendships with major artists and musicians and writers, like Edward Albee. "Occupant" director Aaron Posner imagines what drew Albee, an art lover who also spent years in oblivion, to write a play about her.

POSNER: My own surmise is that he saw himself in Louise Nevelson in many ways - great artists, big egos, lots of complexity.

STAMBERG: Big and gorgeous and crazy, Albee called her. Nevelson, who spent her food money on art supplies when she was young, who had a breast reduction in her 70s - Albee writes, they got in the way of her work - eventually, it all paid off. In 1981, by then well-known and reveling in it, she was asked...


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Are you often recognized when you're walking down the street or...

NEVELSON: You bet your sweet life I am.

STAMBERG: Edward Albee's Nevelson play "Occupant" is at Washington, D.C.'s Theater J until December 8.

I'm Susan Stamberg. NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nationally renowned broadcast journalist Susan Stamberg is a special correspondent for NPR.