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Playwright Sharr White on his starry adaptation of Larry Sultan's photo memoir Pictures From Home
When Sharr White attended a retrospective of Larry Sultan's photography at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2015, he immediately knew the images needed to be on stage. He was particularly taken with Sultan's critically acclaimed 1992 photo memoir Pictures From Home, a mix of childhood snapshots and a decade of staged photographs of his aging parents exploring suburban domesticity and aspirational living in California's San Fernando Valley.
White was mesmerized by a photo of Sultan's father Irving, sitting on a bed in a blue business suit with a projection of text from the book above it. "It was this really intense discussion between Larry and Irving about ownership of the [photograph]—'Whose truth is it? It's your picture, but my image,'" White recalls. "I just wanted to know everything about their relationship."
White has a knack for attracting celebrated theatre actors for his plays—Laurie Metcalf in The Other Place, Mary-Louise Parker in The Snow Geese, Edie Falco in The True. Pictures From Home continues his streak, with Danny Burstein as shutterbug Larry Sultan, and Nathan Lane and Zoë Wanamaker as Irving and Jean, his parents and muses. The intermissionless, 100-minute drama chronicles the making of the book of the same name, as projections of its brightly colored photographs saturate Michael Yeargan's set, a replica of the Sultans' living room complete with avocado green walls and a palm leaf sofa. The memory play probes the behind-the-scenes tensions as Sultan poses his parents but also candidly captures tender moments of them readying for work or grilling in the backyard.
A photo memoir is certainly unusual source material for a play, and merging the mediums proved challenging. "I knew that somehow this was a play, but I was stuck in the how of it," acknowledges White. To start, White got in touch with Sultan's widow, and over dinner and Negronis, she gave the playwright her blessing to explore her late husband's life and work.
Sultan's Pictures From Home took about 10 years to complete. White's theatricalization of it took the better part of a decade. "There's something incredibly meta about the whole thing," he says with a laugh, describing how he pored over the book, the outtakes, the contact sheets, diary entries and even interviewed Sultan's close friends. The challenges of the project and the pandemic made White contemplate giving up for a bit, but he persevered.
In the play, the character of Larry Sultan admits he isn't sure anyone will publish or buy his photo memoir, but he feels compelled to complete it. White felt similarly about his play. "I was doing it to scratch some itch and I thought, if this gets done anywhere, then I'll be happy."
At that point, White didn't know Pictures From Home would end up on Broadway with such a legendary cast. But once his agent started sending out feelers, it happened remarkably quickly. Lead producer Jeffrey Richards received the script on a Friday and by Monday he was on board and going after Nathan Lane to play Sultan's dad. After a few developmental readings, the show is now having its world premiere at Studio 54 directed by Bartlett Sher.
White credits the cast and Sher for helping him successfully translate the story from the page to the stage. "It's very fluid through space and time and emotion and scenes—and that fluidity is absolutely a challenge," concedes White. But Sher turned every obstacle into an opportunity to investigate. "I think there are a lot of directors who would just say, 'I can't make it work' rather than, 'Let's explore exactly what this means,'" says White, noting that his play is an extension of the book's examination of parent-child relationships, immortality and art. Sultan believed that "staging a photograph can expose the truth, that fiction can expose the truth," says White. "There's something sort of deeply layered about all of us being involved in this process."
The tug-of-war between Larry and Irving about the portrayal of Jean in photographs is especially compelling. "It's an Oedipal struggle between an older male animal and a younger male animal over ownership of the female animal," White explains. "There's a really profound undercurrent of struggle for narrative [in the book], which I think is really animal and really complicated, because they deeply love each other."
The original book was Sultan's attempt to give his parents eternal life, and the play furthers that objective by resurrecting them. "On some magical thinking level, Larry did succeed in stopping time, you know?" says White. "There's a kind of immortality—and now they all get to live again. I think that's super bittersweet."
Top image: Danny Burstein, Nathan Lane and Zoë Wanamaker in Pictures From Home. Photo by Julieta Cervantes.