A hundred years before terms like "mommy track" and "telecommuting" crept into the common parlance, German expressionist painter Paula Modersohn-Becker wrestled with an agonizing dilemma: Would she settle for being a stay-at-home mom who filled her few idle hours by sketching portraits, or would she fulfill her prodigious talent by becoming a family-minded career woman?
Local actress Elizabeth Rainer seems to have kept that conundrum firmly in mind while writing and performing Baring Fruit, a one-woman show based on Modersohn-Becker's letters and journals. Co-written and directed by Heidi Rose Robbins, the play is receiving its world premiere at the Nomad Theatre in Boulder (the piece was developed in conjunction with Seattle's City 3 Theater, which sponsored a staged reading of the work in August). More than just a lesson in "having it all" or a footnoted lecture about artistic emancipation, Rainer's appealing life study explores the inevitable interfusing of vocation, calling and desire.
Possessed with a creative wanderlust and plagued by a yearning for familial intimacy, the Dresden-born Modersohn-Becker sought to intertwine her twin passions -- until she died at age 31 from complications related to childbirth. Following her demise, poet/philosopher Rainer Maria Rilke wrote of his close friend, "Your fierce death broke darkly in upon us...to make some sense of it will be our task in everything we do." As we listen to an actor's recorded voice intone those last words of Rilke's "Requiem for a Friend," Rainer enters next to a large projection screen adorned with a mezzotint-ish photograph of the mysterious artiste. She crosses to a table on one side of the stage and pens her thoughts in a journal while speaking them aloud, thereby establishing the play's oft-repeated pattern of interspersed voice-overs, projected images and spoken dialogue.
Throughout the ninety-minute intermissionless work, Rainer addresses us from her writing/kitchen table, takes up residence at an easel at the front edge of center stage and quietly ruminates atop a tastefully made-up cot on the other side of the stage. In addition to demarcating the expansive playing area, the configuration of furniture visually underscores Modersohn-Becker's futile attempts to compartmentalize her life. No sooner does Rainer sit on her bedroom floor and wax romantic than she scrambles to her feet and strides across the stage to the table, determined to master the domestic skills that will help her be a good wife to her mate and onetime mentor, painter Otto Modersohn. Soon after corresponding with her conservative-minded parents -- "You do have a sweet talent for drawing," her father gently condescends before recommending that she pursue a more practical lifestyle -- Rainer abandons the table area to take refuge in the sanctity of her studio. And even though her frenetic comings and goings sometimes have the effect of making the prominently placed easel seem insignificant, the modest wooden tripod takes on new meaning whenever the conflicts between hearth and heart come to a head.
In fact, the makeshift studio area is where Rainer conveys art's capacity to be at once a unifying and divisive force. For instance, we're shown a projected image of roughly sketched trees that seems to confirm her father's dismissive critique of her abilities. Undaunted, Rainer declares her wish to shout from the mountaintop that she's a painter. With a brush in one hand and a well-worked palette in the other, she strikes a commanding pose and focuses her attention on a propped-up canvas as a rich, intriguing painting of birch trees illuminates the projection screen. It's just the first of several arresting moments in which Modersohn-Becker's maturation process is reflected in her ever-developing, sometimes breathtaking artwork.
Director Robbins's touch is most effective when she juxtaposes Modersohn-Becker's premonitions about marriage and motherhood with a handful of telling self-portraits. Well before she becomes pregnant with her only child, we witness a painting of a nude mother resting on her side with a baby at her breast as a disembodied voice observes, "She gave her life her power and her youth to the child, unaware that she was a heroine." Minutes afterward, a haunting self-portrait appears as Rainer blurts out that she cried profusely during her first year of marriage and that she felt more lonely then than when she was a child. Gradually, the portraits, all of which attest to Modersohn-Becker's wondrous color sense, lay bare a woman confident enough to unabashedly render herself nude in what appears to have been her masterpiece ("Self Portrait on Her Sixth Wedding Day"). But even in that luminous work, the matronly figure's knowing eyes reveal a woman resolute in her wish to observe life from a slight emotional distance -- the stance that most artists ultimately take -- rather than fully immersing herself in the grandeur of existence.
If the show occasionally plods along or takes on the tone of an art-history seminar, that's mostly because its plethora of descriptive information is communicated less dramatically than it should be. Since few people know who Modersohn-Becker was, some of the anecdotes seem obscure and tangential instead of intuitively familiar. Indeed, the few dramatized depictions of key events in her life -- such as the tightly constructed episodes leading up to her decision to conceive a child -- are more true to life and, as a result, have little trouble holding our interest. Also, Rainer and Robbins might want to insert more scenes of humor (even a couple that stretch the truth would be okay) such as the bell-ringing incident early on that, because it's played quickly, passes almost without notice. After all, artistic types might be self-indulgent and angst-ridden, but that doesn't mean they're devoid of ribaldry and mirth.
Minor worries aside, Rainer delivers a fine performance that, at its best, is soulful and compelling while epitomizing the drama's philosophical themes. She might have a tendency to vindicate Modersohn-Becker with gangly earnestness instead of allowing the character's irrepressible wonderment to radiate from within, but that's a distinction that Rainer will undoubtedly cultivate much like Modersohn-Becker fleshed out her own aesthetic. As the enigmatic expressionist herself might say, the present intensity of Rainer's grasp allows for a wealth of beauty in her art.
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