Biographical drama is a tricky enterprise. When a biography centers on a pivotal moment in a life, (End of the Rainbow, The Mountaintop, Amadeus) it's perhaps most effective. But when the approach to that life is a chapter-by-chapter memory play, as with Carson Kreitzer's frustratingly didactic Behind the Eye, receiving an equally frustrating production by Gas & Electric Arts, the result - despite nudity and R-rated language - can feel an awful lot like a lecture.
Lee Miller, the play's subject, was a fascinating character with more than a few pivotal moments upon which to hang a narrative. Aside from her career as a fashion model and, literally, the face of some of artist Man Ray's best-known images, she was a muse and icon of the surrealist movement. But her accomplishments before the camera paled beside her own World War II combat photography, much of it retaining a surrealist aesthetic. Unfortunately, Miller's estate didn't authorize use of these pictures - perhaps because her son Antony reserved them for his own Miller bio-drama, The Angel and the Fiend.
Simon Harding's set cleverly recreates the image in Miller's photo Non-Conformist Chapel, a columned doorway filled with rubble from the Blitz, and piles it instead with cardboard boxes - a nod to Antony's attic discovery of her long-neglected work. But a picture is worth a thousand words, and Kreitzer expends far too many on editorializing - Kittson O'Neill's Miller frequently addresses the audience - about her compulsion to find external chaos to quiet the clamor in her head, about love, about her choices, as ex-lovers step forward to utter banal testaments to her uniqueness.
Director Lisa Jo Epstein adds busywork as well, with flipping mirrors and a table on casters. Sometimes the props are effective, as when O'Neill and James Stover (as Miller's wartime photographer-companion Dave Scherman) set the table on its side to depict a famous snap of Miller bathing in Hitler's recently abandoned tub. But other times - as when O'Neill ducks through a gauntlet of swiveling mirrors or flips the table upside-down, creating a gangplank that awkwardly, in two steps, transports her from Egypt to England - they're just silly.
O'Neill sweats through what she's been given, melodrama at the expense of drama, and creates a compelling figure with enough fire to burn through some of those excess pages of dialogue. It's just too bad this is such a conventional piece, because if any life lent itself to a suspension of realism, it was Miller's.
Behind the Eye
Presented by Gas & Electric Arts at Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre, 2111 Sansom St., through Nov. 18.
Information: 215-407-0556 or GasandElectricArts.org.