Success breeds scrutiny, and in Cadence Theatre's entrancing and intimate production "Sight Unseen," scrutiny makes superstar American artist Jonathan Waxman uncomfortable.
After arriving in London for his first international retrospective, Waxman (played by Neil Brookshire) travels deep into the English countryside to look up his old college flame, Patricia (Laine Satterfield). Instead of welcoming his visit, she consistently and jarringly questions his motives. In the scrambled timeline of this show, these scenes are interrupted by an interview days later, when a lovely German journalist (Heather Falks) digs into the inspirations for his art in a similarly upsetting way. If Waxman weren't making $250,000 for paintings he hasn't even completed, you'd almost feel sorry for him.
One of the most pleasing aspects of this play is the nuance playwright Donald Margulies writes into each character. Just when you think Waxman is being unfairly pilloried for his success, Margulies exposes his hubris and insensitivity. Patricia engenders empathy until you see the ways her determination has hardened into bitterness. Even the relatively slightly drawn character of the journalist, Grete, isn't easily distinguished. She seems to be baiting Waxman by focusing on his Jewish heritage, but only after giving the bona fides of a truly devoted fan.
While all of the characters are fascinating, the most entertaining is Patricia's archeologist husband, Nick. Played with exquisite composure and a droll British accent by Andrew Firda, Nick quietly pokes at Waxman as if the artist was a dirt-encrusted fossil. While appearing to be digging for deeper truths, Nick ultimately reveals himself most plainly. In the process, Firda nearly walks away with the production.
Director Rusty Wilson has shown his proficiency with this kind of intense, interpersonal story many times before, and he doesn't disappoint here. He pushes his actors through the talkier, more pretentious "What is art?" dialogue, then lingers on the funny and revealing character moments. He also collaborates with Andrew Hamm on a sound design filled with Simon and Garfunkel tunes that effectively set the tone of each scene.
Scenic designer Benjamin Burke uses a turntable to move quickly between locations, getting the most out of the cozy Theatre Gym space. And costume designer Lynn West shows expert range. Patricia's dowdy frocks and Grete's sleek miniskirt both reflect the characters impeccably.
Only a few minor missteps hamper this show. In the contempt Patricia shows for Waxman, Margulies builds anticipation for a bigger trauma in their past than is ultimately revealed. And while Wilson has cast two consummate actors in Satterfield and Brookshire, they don't quite seem like contemporaries, particularly in scenes that flash back to the early days of their relationship.
Still, the nonlinear progression of scenes proves illuminating in compelling ways, with the ending a delightful surprise. Falks and Brookshire both make their Cadence debuts here and their performances are spot-on — Falks reserved but persistent, Brookshire alternately candid and cagey. Working in partnership with Virginia Repertory Theatre, Cadence continues to bring exciting new talent to town, making its productions an adventure in discovery. "Sight Unseen" is no exception. S
"Sight Unseen" runs through Nov. 8 at the Theatre Gym at the Virginia Repertory Theatre, 114 W. Broad St. For tickets and information call 282-2620 or visit va-rep.org.