Stacy Sims’ world premiere play about art and artists, “As White as O,” deals with the effects of bipolar disorder and schizophrenia on a family. But it also throws something new into the mix — synesthesia, a condition where the subject may taste feelings and see letters in color, among other things. Sims’ writing is compelling, humorous and often fluidly poetic, but the lead character is never entirely believable and the show could use more focus on his story. Sam Anderson’s direction is graceful and impressive, and he gets vivid, finely etched performances from a superb cast.
When Jack (Vince Tula) was a boy, he and his father, Sam (Mark St. Amant), decorated every inch of their home with myriad oddities, from buttons and bells to license plates, marbles and flatware, creating what came to be considered a notable piece of “outsider art.” As an adult, Jack has traveled to New York City to see his old home put up as an exhibit in an art gallery by curator Clara (Lauren Clark), one of Sam’s lovers. Jack is confused about what to do with his life, how to get away from his tragic past, and his synesthesia doesn’t make things any easier.
Tula succeeds at making Jack sympathetic and likable, but the writing keeps the character’s motivations somewhat opaque. Unfortunately, in Sims’ attempt to speak about the broader art world and artists, Jack’s synesthesia isn’t fully explored or integrated into the play, and ends up seeming gimmicky. St. Amant brings a haunted gravitas to Sam, but his role is underwritten; the relationship between Jack and Sam is crucial to the play, but doesn’t get the time it deserves. Clark exudes cold professionalism as Clara, but her perf hints at submerged compassion beneath the ice.
Ramon de Ocampo is quietly strong as fellow artist Ed, and Heather Williams is equally good as his pregnant wife, Vivian. As the institutionalized patient Grace, Elizabeth Sampson gets some of Sims’ most poetic dialogue and runs with it, transitioning from rage to grief to delight in a truly virtuoso turn. Kate Mines is hilarious as the enthusiast girlfriend Lily, and Keelia Flinn brings a fine delicacy of emotion to Jack’s long-ago love Eva. Bryna Weiss, Joe Calarco, Jennings Turner and TJ Marchbank round out the cast, and they all bring good moments to the show.
Anderson benefits from not only having a terrific cast but also an outstanding design team. Desma Murphy’s set is amazing, from the hyperdetailed house to the art gallery where an “O” in a painting mirrors a bigger, broken set of symbolic “O’s” in the mental hospital part of the stage. Adam Flemming’s video projections bring Jack’s memories to life, and David B. Marling’s sound design is expert.