Local painting legend Grandma Moses lived both an ordinary and an extraordinary life, and they were both fascinating.
Before she began painting at age 76, Anna Mary Moses lived on farms in Virginia and nearby parts of New York, running the household and raising five children. Then, after being "discovered" at age 78, Moses became an international celebrity -- appearing on magazine covers and showing her art worldwide. She even visited the White House, where President Harry S. Truman played piano for her. This unexpected dichotomy is central to "Grandma Moses: An American Primitive," a new play running through Nov. 17 at the Oldcastle Theatre, 331 Main St., Bennington.
Written in the late 1980s by Stephen Pouliot, who is mostly known for his work writing television awards shows, the play toured nationally in the ‘90s with Cloris Leachman as the title character. This is the first time it is has run in the area Grandma Moses actually lived (the closest it ever came in the ‘90s was Schenectady, N.Y.).
With so many of Moses' paintings depicting scenes of her home in nearby Eagle Bridge, N.Y., and her childhood home in Greenwich, N.Y., the local references in this play are abundant. Almost surprisingly so, considering this play has been seen all over the country. Oldcastle did not alter Pouliot's script at all, so the constant mentions of Hoosick Falls (where Moses apparently used to buy the housepaint she used for paintings) and even the Battle of Bennington show how extensively Pouliot researched his subject when writing the play. These references make the show an especially relatable experience for the Oldcastle audience, offering a fascinating look into the way people lived in this area as far back as the Civil War.
Pouliot's play is divided much like Moses' life was: The first act shows her life on the farm from childhood through middle age, and the second act focuses on her painting career as an older woman.
The first part strings together several separate story fragments that essentially function as Moses' origin story -- explaining her childhood, her family life and, most of all, her distinctive personality.
The non-linear timeline and quirky narrative structure present some interesting challenges for the actors, especially for Peter Langstaff, who plays all of the men in the show (and there are at least eight). Sometimes the actors change roles merely by altering their voices or a wardrobe detail, forcing the audience to suspend their disbelief and ignore that the farmer wears a tie or the little girl is dressed like a middle-aged housewife. These quirks are inevitable for a two-man show though, and the actors keep them from getting in the way with their convincing performances.
While it might jump around a bit, the first act actually crafts a compelling portrait of rural life around the turn of the 20th century, immersing the audience in the world that Grandma Moses would eventually paint.
Christine Decker's strong performance as Moses is crucial to this first act -- she lures the audience into falling in love with her character's personality long before her fame comes. Pouliot also uses the first act to foreshadow Moses' future artistic success, establishing her as an artistic mind long before she actually blossoms as an artist.
The second act functions differently, as it tells the part of the story that the audience already knows (at least a little bit). It also takes on a whole new narrative frame and shifts its focus from Moses' background and influences to they way she reacted to her fame. It also introduces several key characters, weaving a web of fascinating relationships that Decker and Langstaff enact vividly.
Throughout the second act, Decker does a remarkable job of adjusting the way her character interacts with the various people in her life, approaching family (or the audience) with a feeling of warmth and care built up from the first act, then changing tones completely in her defensive conversations with the big-city art professionals that show up at her door. The way she captures the nuances of how her character acts in different situations is immensely satisfying to watch.
This portrayal of Moses' key personal and professional relationships becomes the key aspect of act two, building up to the show's overall highlight: The relationship between Moses and her New York patron, Dr. Otto Kaillir.
This relationship brings out the best in both Decker and Langstaff, as they let the characters' friendship evolve alongside their working relationship in an impressively subtle and natural way.
Just like Moses seems to have lived two separate (but equally interesting) lives, this play succeeds on two separate levels: As drama and biography. As a piece of art on its own, the acting performances make the play an immensely relatable, engaging and enjoyable experience. On the other hand, as a biographical document, the play goes beyond merely showing the details of Moses' life and her artistic approach -- it gives the audience a feeling of familiarity and even fondness towards the artist, allowing today's art enthusiasts the chance to form a relationship with the late painter. Art about art can be tricky, but this play makes avoiding pitfalls feel natural and effortless.
"Grandma Moses: An American Primitive" runs Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., with 2 p.m. matinees on Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays through Nov. 17 at Oldcastle Theatre.
Jamie Franklin, curator of the Bennington Museum, will be on hand after the 2 p.m. matinee on Saturday, Nov. 9, to engage the audience in a discussion about the life of Grandma Moses, the museum's collection of her work and the myths that surround her life story.
The Bennington Museum is also partnering with Oldcastle to give theatergoers (with Oldcastle receipts) $2 off the entry price to the museum, while those with a receipt from the museum will save $5 on tickets to the play.
Jack McManus can be found on Twitter at @Banner_Arts and via email at jmcmanus@ benningtonbanner.com