By Toby Zinman


It’s like watching a novel: all the intimacy, all the language, all the complexity of character, without having to turn a page. Nicholas Wright’s engrossing, prize-winning play about the young van Gogh, Vincent in Brixton, is receiving a just-about-perfect production at the Walnut’s Independence Studio under Kate Galvin’s direction.

Before he became the painter he became, Vincent van Gogh (Brian Cowden, who manages to sound Dutch and crazy and profoundly sweet all at once) lived for a short while in a London boardinghouse. The drama of his landlady (Mary Martello, going from triumph to triumph — this is every bit as fine as her recent performance in Lantern’s Beauty Queen of Leenane), her daughter (Clare Mahoney), her daughter’s boyfriend (John Jarboe), and Vincent’s awful sister Anna (Liz Filios) is Wright’s fictionalized biographical chapter in a life that would change painting forever.

Mrs. Loyer is a profoundly depressed widow whose mission is to inspire the boys in her school, and, eventually, her newest lodger, young Vincent. This is a love story about a middle-aged woman whose black moods when she looked up at the starry night would have an effect that she could not know but that we do. Keep your eye and ear out for intimations of paintings to come.

Besides the exceptionally fine cast — not a weak link, not a false moment — the physical production is superb. Thom Weaver’s atmospheric lighting as well as the set, with its working iron stove and its worn wooden table, seem perfect, as are the props: the Times from 1876, the wicker pram, the old clock. Chris Colucci’s music is haunting. In Act Two, Vincent says: “Let me tell you a story while you’re still in love with me.” And, like Mrs. Loyer, we, too, lean forward.


Walnut Street Theatre’s Independence Studio on 3, Ninth and Walnut Streets, through March 10. Tickets: $30-$40. 215-574-3550 or