While the "Star Trek" movie franchise was in its infancy, actor Leonard Nimoy obsessed over another iconic figure with famous ears: the tortured painter Vincent Van Gogh.
Drawn to the passionate "Starry Night" artist's short career, eccentricities and depression, Nimoy bought the rights to and adapted Phillip Stevens' one-man play about the painter, "Vincent," in the late 1970s. While touring the production around the country for two years, Nimoy devoted a 1980 episode of his documentary series "In Search Of…" to Van Gogh, and wrote a 1981 made-for-TV movie about him. "I have a tremendous identification with Vincent, because I really believe that he believed that he had something to offer and that he wanted to give it," Nimoy told the Associated Press in 1980.
Although actor James Briggs doesn't share the same obsession as Nimoy, who died in 2015 at age 83, he says it was Van Gogh's "incredibly rich life" that fascinated him enough to resurrect the play, running Oct. 21-23 at the Kravis Center for the Performing Arts.
Something else motivated Briggs: He thought he was a dead ringer for the Dutch master.
"I was shaving, looking at myself in the mirror one day, and I realized, 'I look like Van Gogh,' and wondered if anyone had ever done a play about him," says Briggs, whose theater company, Starry Night Productions, nods to Van Gogh's masterwork. "When I saw that Leonard Nimoy had made 'Vincent,' the role seemed perfect."
Leonard Nimoy's "Vincent," which is also heading Nov. 17-20 to the Dave and Mary Alper Jewish Community Center in Miami, is set one week after Van Gogh's suicide in 1890. Briggs portrays both the painter and his brother, Theo, at a gathering of friends and family.
The post-funeral meeting really happened. Theo was too broken up to sound eloquent at the funeral. Briggs, as Theo, reads from actual letters of correspondence, soliloquy-style, that Theo wrote to Van Gogh. Nimoy uncovered the letters in his research, Briggs says.
"I approached [Van Gogh] as a 1,000-watt light bulb in a 10-watt world. He had this huge passion that, as we now know, wasn't sustainable over the long term," says Briggs, who opened the play in Pittsfield, Mass., in December 2012. "There were rumors swirling back then that Vincent was a crazy, sick man, and Theo wanted to set the record straight."
Briggs, like Nimoy, says he was keen to show Van Gogh's true complexities, and reshape the painter's reputation as a self-mutilating madman who lopped off his left ear in self-pity, sold few paintings and committed suicide. A preacher and a schoolteacher before he picked up a paintbrush, Van Gogh painted most of his post-impressionist works in the final two years of his life, and dwelled in a rustic workspace above a painter's shop in Antwerp, Belgium.
Van Gogh's studio and Theo's upper-middle-class apartment appear side by side onstage, Briggs says, as will more than 100 slides of Van Gogh's paintings. Included among the photos are a few images that Nimoy, a lifelong photographer, shot himself.
"Right after [Nimoy's] death, I remember reading this article saying that although 'Star Trek' is what he'll be remembered for, Van Gogh was his passion piece," Briggs says.
"Vincent" runs 7 p.m. Friday, Oct. 21, through Sunday, Oct. 23, at the Kravis Center for the Performing Arts, 701 Okeechobee Blvd., in West Palm Beach. The play will also appear Nov. 17-20 at the Dave and Mary Alper Jewish Community Center, 11155 SW 112th Ave., in Miami. Admission is $30-$35 via pay-by-phone at 1-800-572-8471. Call 561-832-7469 or go to Kravis.org.
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