A museum guard gives in to the urge to touch a famous painting, setting off an eons-spanning lesson in art appreciation in this time-hopping comic fantasy.
Art appreciation is the obvious study subject of Jessica Dickey’s charming if disjointed play, which starts its journey in an exhibition hall in an anonymous, institutional museum on the scale of the Art Institute. But the subtextual course material is Grieving 101. Henry (Francis Guinan at opening, to be replaced by Joe Dempsey from October 24 on), the gentle, supremely knowledgeable guard we meet in the opening scene, has a partner at home with Stage IV cancer; Madeline (Karen Rodriguez), the nascent art student who shows up to copy a Rembrandt, has just lost her grandmother.
What exactly moves Dodger (Ty Olwin), a rookie museum guard and street artist, to talk the other two into the forbidden—touching the 350-plus-year-old painting, Aristotle Contemplating a Bust of Homer—is unclear beyond serving as Dickey’s trigger to take us on a fanciful journey back in time to visit Rembrandt (Guinan again), who himself is mourning his wife; in the next scene, we jump further back for a comic monologue from another recent widower, Rembrandt’s proxy subject Homer (John Mahoney, who returns as Henry’s lover, who’s pointedly also a poet).
The three eras fit nicely together thematically, if not dramaturgically. Similarly, Hallie Gordon’s physical staging feels a bit dislocated in this Steppenwolf production, but emotionally, Gordon and her impressive cast render it with precision brushstrokes.
Steppenwolf Theatre Company. By Jessica Dickey. Directed by Hallie Gordon. With Francis Guinan, John Mahoney, Karen Rodriguez, Ty Olwin, Gabriel Ruiz. Running time: 1hr 25mins; no intermission.