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THEATRE REVIEW: Season to Season

The Way They Were: An incandescent play about big, big lives

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There's a lot to admire about Contemporary Theatre Lab's Season to Season.

For starters, playwright Richard Rashke's vision of the tempestuous relationship between artists Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner is an edge-of-your-seat roller coaster ride at the brink of chaos.

Season's more instructive charm is in giving us a sense of the way we were.

When postwar America asked for a portrait of manhood that could safely lead it into a prosperous age of nuclear families, stalwart Jim Anderson, pater familias of the chirpy TV sitcom Father Knows Best was the answer. A suit and tie insurance man who could preside over the breakfast table, reliable and composed.

Commanding the other end of the spectrum, Jackson Pollock — teetering, fulminating, creating. Even Life magazine didn't quite know what to make of the volcanically energetic artist. Life's career-making 1949 profile of the abstract expressionist came riddled with question marks. With an almost palpable shudder, the magazine asked, "Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?" They dubbed him, "Jack the Dripper."

Director Mark Gorman's cast evokes Pollock's life in full: bold, intimate, farcical, and tragic. Veteran Charleston actor JC Conway, as Pollock, gives us a character whose every breath is a kind of primal scream. Even when his mother, Stella (Jacqualine Helmer), is called in to act as a steadying hand, his hulking silence in response to her is little more than simmering denial of that frenzy: momentarily bottled-up and diffused by mom's apple pie.

As a mother, Stella has a lot to answer for, and each of the other significant women in Pollock's life, his patroness Peggy Guggenheim (Linda Eisen) and his lover Lee Krasner (Kristen Kos), eagerly step into the fray with questions. Any time Eisen and Kos share a scene, there's enough energy in the room to make the stage lights flicker.

Pollock's life is a landscape at the fringes of the map — the place where "there be dragons." In the midst of that terra incognita, Eisen's Guggenheim and Kos' Krasner set up a fairground tent: the emotional marketplace where each character jockeys to derive some perceived value from the other — negotiating, bartering, and threatening to abandon the task of channelling Pollock's work into their own visions for it.

In fact, Rashke shows us a Pollock who is hopelessly out-maneuvered at every turn by the people in his life. Peggy Guggenheim's art critic-cum-consigliere Harold (David Abrams) boasts that in 20 years, no one will remember Jackson Pollock, but his own name will remain on the public's lips.

There's more than enough ego to go around in this crowd, and watching this cast one-up each other's most outrageous ambitions are easily the funniest scenes in the play, themselves worth the price of admission.

More quietly, Kos makes her Lee Krasner an endearing character, a compelling portrait of devoted, if conflicted, love. In hushed scenes, Kos reveals the complex heart of the matter: The people we love are less than perfect. These are sincere, beautiful moments that beckon silence in the theater.

These silences are affecting and starkly highlighted in a play that is, in every other way, incandescent. These were big, big lives, and the cast brings everything they have to showing the way they were.

By comparison, today's artists are a far tamer lot: happily domesticated, the new residents of Father Knows Best turf. M.F.A.s and peaceable academic careers are the norm, with greater effort devoted to appealing rather than appalling.

Those wildly ambitious, amoral, and self-obsessed misfits of yore would, these days, be better served by shunning the arts and seeking a more congenial playground for their erratic shenanigans.

Today, they'd be investment bankers.

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