The ego of 20th-century artist Mark Rothko was as large as his abstract expressionist paintings.
But it was much more than ego driving Rothko, known for his use of color fields, who earned a legendary status among modern painters. It was a faith that his work had an important, useful purpose to humanity, one of the many themes explored in Actors Guild of Lexington's production of John Logan's play Red, which opened Thursday.
The play premiered in London's Donmar Warehouse in 2009 before transferring to Broadway in 2010, where its limited run won six Tony Awards, including best play.
Set during the late 1950s, the two-character show centers on Rothko and his young assistant, Ken, as they work on a series of paintings commissioned by the Seagram beverage company for the new Four Seasons restaurant in New York, a luxury destination that could not stand in greater contrast to Rothko's studio in a dilapidated gym in Lower Manhattan's Bowery. As Rothko and Ken make frames, prepare canvases and mix paint, Ken questions Rothko about his theories of art, particularly the commercial nature of the Seagram commission.
In his review in The New York Times, Ben Brantley called Red "intense and exciting." Michael Kuchwara of The Associated Press said it was an "engrossing, often enthralling new play about art, an artist and the act of creation."
Jerome Davis, a visiting director who is founding artistic director of Burning Coal Theatre Company in Raleigh, N.C., says the generational conflict between Rothko and Ken sheds light on what he calls "one of the great mysteries of modern art history."
Despite completing almost 40 paintings for Seagram, Rothko abruptly returned the company's hefty check with little explanation. The collection was kept in storage for 10 years before being split up and distributed to galleries in London, Japan and Washington. Rothko died in 1970.
Actors Guild artistic director Eric Seale is an avowed Rothko fan and general lover of the visual arts. When he read Logan's script, he knew he wanted to produce it, and even though he longed to direct it himself, he passed.
"I'm not mature enough," says Seale, 31, whose artistic career has surpassed the stage of young upstart as embodied by Ken but is far from what Rothko represents.
So Seale tapped Davis, who visited AGL as an actor last year in Connor McPherson's St. Nicholas, a monologue performance that was part of AGL's second-stage series.
Davis is a veteran theater artist from a family of theater artists. His twin brother, Tony Davis, teaches theater at a high school in Tennessee. Their brother Tim X. Davis is a mainstay of Lexington theater and is coordinator of the theater program at Bluegrass Community and Technical College. Tim stars as Rothko in AGL's production.
Marshall Manley plays the assistant, Ken.
"He found things that I wouldn't have," Seale says of Jerome Davis' direction.
Davis says he aims to bring nuance, insight and passion to Rothko, whom he says was "a bit of a bully."
"If that's all the audience sees, they are not going to be engaged," Davis says.
Instead, he chose to cultivate what Rothko himself termed "inner luminescence," which refers not only to the technical execution of paintings he hoped would "glow" but of the urge to make art and find its larger importance to society.
"Rothko talks a lot about the inner luminescence of his art and of good art," says Davis. "The playwright has used that as a metaphor for Rothko's faith in his work and his belief that his work can have an effect on humankind, which is a hard thing to hold onto as an artist."
The play focuses on a famous artist at a pivotal stage in his career, but Davis says he thinks Red will appeal to a wide audience and spark a dialogue about the role of the arts in society.
"It is a very political play in that sense," he says.
"America was forged out of a vast wilderness, and the degree to which art has taken a back seat to that over the last 250 years is not unexpected, but it's also not good."
Davis refers to people in Kentucky or his home state of North Carolina as "Shakespeare's people, Moliere's people," and said he believes "very strongly that art is in the DNA somewhere and it can be rekindled."
"If ever there was a play that made the argument that it's worth fighting for," he says, "this is that play."
IF YOU GO
What: Actors Guild of Lexington's production of John Logan's Tony-winning play from 2009.
When: 8 p.m. Jan. 24-26, Feb. 1, 2; 2 p.m. Jan. 27 and Feb. 3
Where: AGL's South Elkhorn Theatre, 4383 Old Harrodsburg Rd.
Tickets: $20, $15 seniors and students, $10 military. Call 1-866-811-4111 or go to Actors-guild.org.
Candace Chaney is a Lexington-based writer.