Just when her career, marriage and friendships seem lost, an inspired artist is driven to paint a way out, in the power-packed world premiere of Michele Lowe’s “Map of Heaven.” From the rhythmic banter of the first scene, in which painter Lena Gates (Stephanie Janssen) and her dealer (Angela Reed) discuss the upcoming breakthrough show to the multi-layered denouement 100 minutes later, the dramatic dynamics of helmer Evan Cabnet’s well-tuned effort never abate, pointing to its cinematic potential.
Lena’s works are maps that somehow encompass the history and sense of place. We never see this on canvas, but are given a notion of the style by the evocative cartographic notations that decorate the proscenium, which frames David M. Barber’s marvelously detailed lower Manhattan artist’s loft.
As the date of the show approaches, Lena departs from her stylistic norm and begins to paint imaginary places, despite objections from her dealer, Rebecca. Little do either of them realize the importance of this variance in resolving a daunting conflict just over the horizon.
Janssen and Reed’s interplay is surprisingly contrapuntal, despite their starkly contrasting styles — intuitive and analytic — setting a lyrical tone that echoes between other characters at different octaves throughout the drama, for example, in the mercurial tete-a-tetes between Lena and her husband, Ian (Quentin Mare), or in the repartee of sibling rivalry between Ian and his sister, Jen (Jessica Love, in an exquisitely dry and witty perf).
Unbeknownst to Ian, a radiologist, Rebecca sent her sister to see him regarding a lump in her breast. The malignancy was so pronounced that Ian sent her home, figuring that — save for a miracle — she was incurable, and buried her file in the archives. When the file is discovered later by a colleague, ethical and legal issues arise, driving Ian into a manic immersion in his avocation, flying, and threatening Lena’s relationship with Rebecca and the upcoming show.
Ian could easily have been the fall guy for all of Lena’s ills, but scribe Lowe has woven a sublime tapestry. On the heels of Lena’s remarkable solution — a painting titled “Map of Heaven” — to Rebecca’s grief and anger, Ian’s catharsis (gripping work by Mare) serves to gently amplify the play’s overarching theme: the healing power of art. Indeed, as Einstein once noted, “imagination is more important than knowledge.” Tell that to those who would jettison our culture in the name of austerity.