Pictures at an Exhibition

A funny thing happened while watching the play Pictures From Home. I was transported in a metaphysical sense to the photographic images of my childhood and my family while growing up.

My father was a photobug and recorded everything on film, which in the 1950s meant 16mm movies on Kodak stock as well as his 1940s Contax 35mm camera with a Zeiss Ikon lens. That’s part of the world of Pictures From Home.

The main character is a professor who teaches photography, and theory of the image at a prestigious university.

The other two characters are his parents. Pictures From Home unfolds as a tight dramatic dance around familial values. At issue are the photos that Larry Sultan (perfectly cast Zachary Fine) has taken of his parents Irving and Jean (Todd Waite in a standout performance matched by Susan Koozin.). The beginning has split second comic timing, with parents talking at the same time, but before long unpleasant issues surface.

Larry has published a coffee-table hardback book that celebrates his life with pictures he’s taken over the course of his life. His parents are too involved in daily bickering to grasp the depth of his commitment; even when the book is published they hate it.

Pictures From Home has a curious path to the Alley Theatre.

Larry Sultan is a real person and the play is based on an incident from his life. The play was developed for the Alley All New Festival in 2020. That potential world premiere was put on hold during the pandemic. Eventually the play opened on Broadway last year with a tony cast and is now running at the Alley Theatre until February 11.

The play with its abstract set and past, present, future narrative unfolding all at once gives director Rob Melrose an opportunity to pump up an atmosphere that reflects reality while also blending a surreal level of omnipresence.

The set has ‘50s-era roof angle backgrounds with central set pieces popping up from the underneath-the-stage elevator in the middle of the Alley’s Hubbard Stage.

Screens, lowered and raised, with pictures taken by Larry show the actual Sultan parents further propelling the play into a documentary fantasy mood.

All of the pictures are stationary images. There’s a moment late in the play involving an airport where instead of an up and down reveal the screen, with the image of an airport lounge, travels horizontally from stage left to stage right. As the screen moved the airport was also moving, and when it raised into darkness the image also showed the ceiling. This specific moment encapsulated the profound effect that memory has on current events.

Judging from after-performance discussion in the Alley’s circular lobby Places From Home especially connects with audience members who themselves hold on to pictures of relatives that have died. 

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