Crossovers between theater and art are rare. In recent years, two come to mind: the 2009 play about Mark Rothko that came in 2012 to Houston’s Alley Theatre, and the imaginative, world-expanding musical starring Daniel Johnston’s fantastical characters, put on in 2019 by Catastrophic Theater. Other collaborations have existed (Trenton Doyle Hancock famously designed sets and costumes for Ballet Austin, and other artists, like the longtime Houstonian Earl Staley, have occasionally been tapped for opera set design), but, generally, the chasm between the theater/performing arts worlds and the visual art community remains surprisingly wide.
Much in the same way I like to look at art, I prefer to go into theater productions blind: I don’t look at reviews or read full synopses on websites. This is how I encountered Sharr White’s Pictures from Home, which is playing at the Alley Theatre through the end of this week. The play is a direct descendant of Larry Sultan’s eponymous years-in-the-making photobook, which documents the lives and histories, real and imagined, of his parents.
The idea for the show came rather easily: upon seeing a 2015 retrospective of Sultan’s work at LACMA, White was struck by Sultan’s Pictures from Home series. After realizing it could be the concept for a play, he approached Sultan’s widow (Sultan died in 2009), who pledged the estate’s full support of the production. The interim years involved research and writing, including extended conversations about Sultan, his work, and his parents. According to an interview with White, he put off viewing videos of Sultan and his parents, because he instead “wanted to capture these three people based solely on the photographs and the text in Sultan’s book. As White put it, he didn’t want to produce a piece of documentary theater, so he decided to only view the videos much later in the process.”
This quote stuck out to me because it points out how much of a meta, circular narrative concept this play is. Sultan’s photobook is notable because the images depict real life, but not exactly; they’re staged, lit, taken over nine years. A friend told me that he thinks of Sultan as one of the first artists to fully commit to the concept of real-but-staged-but-real photography. So, then, what does it mean to create a 3D, time-based narrative (a play), out of a book of not really real photos? It’s a tricky mind game that relies on artistic interpretation to blend truth, fiction, reality, art, and storytelling.
In the play, the main conflict is that Sultan’s dad, Irving (played in the Houston production by the marvelous Alley resident actor Todd Waite), does not understand what Sultan is doing or why he would take time to get on a plane and spend days photographing his parents. Irving’s doubts are only stoked in the production when Sultan (Zachary Fine) admits that he doesn’t know what the project is going to be, or why exactly he feels the need to do it. Sultan’s mother, Jean (Susan Koozin), meanwhile, bickers with both of them (but primarily with Irving), goes off to work selling real estate (Irving no longer works, but for years was a VP at Schick, the razor company), and generally tries to keep the peace.
The world of the play itself is expanded because White wrote each of the characters to regularly break the fourth wall. Sultan starts the opening scene by talking directly to us, the audience, about his life, showing us home movies of the real Sultan’s family. Then, throughout the show, the characters cue up scenes by referencing projected images of Sultan’s photos. Sometimes the images put a button on dialogue; this is White laying bare his inspirations behind the play, as in a scene where Sultan is trying to photograph Irving as he gives a for-the-camera lecture. In this and other cases, pieces of recorded and transcribed text from the photobook are lifted for the characters’ lines.
Other times, the use of photographs is more complicated. This is where some of the meat of the writing — both White’s and Sultan’s — comes through. In one scene, Sultan and Irving both ask for projections of specific images depicting Irving. Irving prefers a press image of him from Schick: he’s in a boardroom, wearing a suit, making executive decisions with other 1970s men. Sultan instead favors his own photograph, which shows Irving shirtless, vulnerable, laying on a couch with his eyes closed. Irving argues that he looks soft and doesn’t like it; Sultan counters that this image is at least an element of the true Irving (which, based on the abrasive, caustic, and funny wit Todd Waite imbues into the character, is slightly hard to believe). Nonetheless, the conversations (or, arguments) that ensue are rapt visual analyses that break down the power, fiction, and connotation behind images when they’re let loose in the world.
What White has captured in his script, even more so than in the photobook, is the uneasiness, the working-it-out that artists go through in their process and the subsequent flack they receive from people who don’t understand this way of creating. In many ways, the play rounds out and brings to life a narrative that was frozen in amber when Sultan published Pictures from Home in 1992. Contradictorily and antithetically, this memory play doesn’t actually elucidate any truer truth than the book and its text do; perhaps, it could be argued, it is even more of a fiction, a posed photo seen through someone else’s lens.
Pictures from Home — both the play and the book — thrives in the gray areas of life that are too often rebuked. Multiple truths can surround a history; there are two sides to every story. Oftentimes when we try to figure something out, we overly complicate the situation by thinking too much (this could be Irving’s motto). At the same time, if we only look on the surface, we can never fully understand the broader “why,” which is the subtext of how we move through the world (this is Sultan’s). A solution is a blending of the two — of accepting, looking, thinking, accepting, reevaluating, pondering, and finally accepting again, until you’re content with the outcome, even if you see differently than someone else. For some of us, this takes years; for others, like Irving (based on one of his final quotes in the photobook), it seems to come easier: “Look, I don’t care what you do as long as it’s successful. You worry too much. I’m really happy to help you with your project. Seriously. I just wanted you to know that for the most part that’s not me I recognize in those pictures.”
Pictures from Home is playing at the Alley Theatre in Houston through February 11, 2024.