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First Night: Van Gogh Lovers Will Want to See Leonard Nimoy's 'Vincent'

If you're searching for an example of genuine brotherly love, you don't start with Cain and Abel. Perhaps the choicest place to look is Vincent and Theo Van Gogh.
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If you're searching for an example of genuine brotherly love, you don't start with Cain and Abel. Perhaps the choicest place to look is Vincent and Theo Van Gogh.

Although Vincent only did one portrait of his brother, he wrote hundreds of letters--often asking for funds, granted--in which it makes plain that he loved his brother deeply. Theo's responses, money included, attest to his reciprocal feeling--as does his finally selling one of Vincent's paintings, "The Red Vineyard at Arles," only shortly before his troubled brother's demise in Auver-sur-Oise from a self-inflicted gunshot.

Anyone in pursuit of more substantiating proof should hustle to St. Clement's where Starry Night Theater Company (ask yourself, What else could they call the producing outfit?) is presenting James Briggs in Vincent, which was written by Leonard Nimoy (who also performed in it) and is now directed by Dr. Brant Pope.

You better be alerted immediately that Briggs doesn't (or Nimoy, for that matter, didn't) appear as the sibling who painted, which the title may awkwardly imply. He plays Theo. The conceit is that Theo is addressing us on April 5, 1890, or one week to the day after his brother died (July 29, 1890). He's fulfilling a pressing need. He admits he was unable to speak at the funeral and is seizing this occasion to rectify his failure.

As Theo, Briggs paces his own design of a late 19th-century room that could either be gallerist Theo's gallery or the 54 Rue Lepic home he shared with wife Johanna and where Vincent lodged for a brief period. (Neither locale is specified.) While an ample supply of drawings and paintings flash on an upstage screen, the grieving brother reviews Van Gogh's short-lived career. Along the way, he reads many of those now well-known letters.

Theo begins by recalling his brother's intention to follow in their minister father's footsteps by preaching. Unfortunately, his religious passions overtook him, which led to his being asked by superiors to leave the church. Theo goes on to talk about Vincent's sharing his Arles residency with Paul Gauguin, for whom he doesn't have strictly kind words. The similarity of their work at times is apparent on the screen.

Repeatedly, Theo responds to accusations that Vincent was mad. He mission is to lay those claims to rest. For a while he makes a convincing argument that all artists can suggest minds at odds with the rest of the world--and even addresses the severed piece of ear. Towards the end of his earnest contending, however, he talks about the asylum at St. Rémy where Van Gogh had been admitted and mentions a day when his brother was allowed to go to the fields to paint but didn't return at the appointed hour.

Concerned staff members on the lookout found him clutching a tree. Refusing to let go, he insisted that the tree had captured his soul and were he to disengage, his soul would be gone forever. While Theo doesn't see this as the strong sign of a severe mental disturbance, thousands of others might disagree.

Wearing a businessman's three-piece suit, Briggs makes Theo a deeply sympathetic character. The man's love for his conflicted brother is achingly delineated. As Theo's portrait is projected, the impression is given that Briggs, helped by his beard, does resemble Theo somewhat. (The thin-faced Nimoy must have offered a stronger resemblance.)

Among Van Gogh facts not included here is that Vincent is buried in the Auvers-sur-Oise cemetery not more than 100 yards from where he painted "Wheat field With Crows." A related fact is that Johanna had Theo, who died six months after Vincent, interred alongside him. A blanket of ivy unites them in what you hope is their rest.

On the other hand, among the facts imparted here about the now famous Van Gogh--exhibits of his works guarantee huge crowds at any museum--is Vincent's favorite color: yellow. To underline that on Briggs's set, there's a vase containing two sunflowers.

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