With any luck you turn into whoever you want to be, and with even better luck you turn into whoever you should be. No, you got somebody in you right from the start, and if you're lucky you figure out who it is and you become it."

With any luck you turn into whoever you want to be, and with even better luck you turn into whoever you should be. No, you got somebody in you right from the start, and if you’re lucky you figure out who it is and you become it.” That contorted philosophy of identity, articulated by sculptor Louise Nevelson, is as good a summation as any of Edward Albee’s enigmatic character study, “Occupant.” Delving again into the vast blur between truth and illusion, the playwright investigates the complex process of self-invention, reflecting on the way artists create their work and themselves.

Originally staged by Anthony Page for the Signature Theater Company in 2002 — around the same time Albee was emerging from the critical wilderness with “The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?” — this knotty portrait of the playwright’s friend, Russian-born American abstract assemblage artist Nevelson, has a troubled history. Anne Bancroft, who originated the leading role in the two-character piece, became ill with pneumonia and was forced to withdraw after a handful of previews. She returned late in the limited run, but the production never opened to the press.

Six years later, Signature has redressed that situation with Pam MacKinnon’s lucid staging, in which Mercedes Ruehl loses herself in a full-immersion inhabitation of the flamboyant Nevelson, whose own public persona was part performance. A slender work structured as an interview with the artist after her death, “Occupant” is less complex than the majority of Albee’s plays and does not attempt to build dramatic conflict in conventional ways. But it’s a fascinating and entirely coherent addition to the playwright’s body of work that climaxes in a moment of vivid self-revelation.

The play is set in the present, 20 years after Nevelson died from lung cancer at age 88, and staged on designer Christine Jones’ austere platform, with wooden benches that cleverly echo the box-like structures of the late sculptor’s work.

Introduced by an unnamed interviewer (Larry Bryggman) who initially is all smiling obsequiousness yet soon begins to challenge his reluctant subject on points large and small, Louise sweeps onto the stage, tall and imperious in her characteristic bohemian drag (courtesy of costumer Jane Greenwood) of colorful ethno-chic layered coats, headscarf and hat, her eyes hooded by the two pairs of sable lashes she was never seen without. “They sure do call attention to themselves — the eyes — if you’ve got two sets of sable eyelashes on ‘em,” she explains.

Initially quibbling and then conceding to the appropriateness of the word “great” in describing her, Louise is prodded into revisiting her origins — her emigration with her Russian-Jewish family in 1905; her childhood as an exotic outsider in Rockland, Maine; her marriage to shipping magnate Charles Nevelson and elevation into New York respectability; the birth of her son and her confessed unsuitability for motherhood.

Every step of the way, the interviewer probes a little deeper than Louise appears willing to go. Often, she dismisses his queries, waving a hand to indicate that discrepancies in dates and details are unimportant. Other times, she’s argumentative, attempting to discredit the interviewer to the audience: “Who is this guy!?” As the emotional stakes climb higher — the disintegration of her marriage, years of rejection in the art world, her drinking and nervous breakdown — the Q&A grows increasingly prickly.

“A lot of contradictions,” says the interviewer. “A lot of evasions, a lot of … careful misrememberings, a lot of scores being settled, and a lot of … well … outright lies.”

Accuracy repeatedly is called into question regarding Louise’s recollection of key episodes from her life that clearly have been embroidered over many retellings — the psychic imprint left on her by the image of a black horse bolting for freedom; the hypnotic eyes of a boy from her adolescence; museum shows of Japanese robes or African utilitarian art. Albee makes it clear he has zero interest in standard biodrama, instead tracing the intricate sculpting process that goes into the creation of an artist. Fact and fabrication become as loosely, inextricably intertwined as artist and art.

It’s typical of the playwright’s unorthodox approach that Nevelson’s work is directly discussed only in the final stretch. But as Ruehl slowly lights up while recounting the beginnings of her habit of collecting discarded pieces of wood, seemingly with no particular aim in mind, and then the genesis of her inspiration to assemble these found objects into the sculptures that made her an influential figure in 20th century art, the play becomes a universal observation on the formation of the artist — or of any creative personality.

And in a pared-down production that may be a little untheatrical for some tastes, Jones also obliges by illustrating this moment of illumination with a magnificent scenic coup that allows us to share directly in the joy and fulfillment Nevelson derived from her work.

Fresh from her incisive production of Albee’s “Peter and Jerry,” MacKinnon conducts the lively to-and-fro of the playwright’s dialogue like a maestro, keeping the actors moving around the large space.

Bryggman’s role serves mainly as a conduit toward knowledge of the elusive Nevelson, but he strikes a fine balance between deferential charm and stubborn perseverance.

Ruehl is transfixing, her character’s arrogance and unwavering sense of her own specialness cracking like fine porcelain to show the fragility beneath. And her long, spindly fingers — ideal for playing a sculptor — perform a mesmerizing puppet show of their own. This is far superior material to Ruehl’s last trip down the road of an eccentric art world denizen, playing Peggy Guggenheim in the pedestrian 2005 solo show, “Woman Before a Glass.”

Used to signify an artist’s role in occupying his own space by living fully and creating, Albee’s title also is explained in a charming anecdote about Nevelson, who had hospital staff remove her name from the door of the room in which she died, replacing it simply with the word, “Occupant.”

Occupant

Peter Norton Space; 160 seats; $20 top

Production

A Signature Theater Company presentation of a play in two acts by Edward Albee. Directed by Pam MacKinnon.

Creative

Set, Christine Jones; costumes, Jane Greenwood; lighting, David Lander; makeup, Angelina Avallone; production stage manager, Lloyd Davis Jr. Opened June 5, 2008. Reviewed June 1. Running time: 1 HOUR, 50 MIN.

Cast

Louise Nevelson - Mercedes Ruehl The Man - Larry Bryggman
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