PROVIDENCE - Luminous, intelligent, provocative, and deeply moving - all these adjectives apply to "Some Things Are Private," as well as to the photographer whose pictures inspired it, Sally Mann. More than adjectives, though, what both Mann's work and this remarkable play call for is an imperative: See it.
Seeing, truly seeing, is at the heart of Mann's work and of this play, a Trinity Repertory Company premiere by the same team that created Trinity's incisive documentary drama about the Iraq war's effect at home, "Boots on the Ground." In researching that play, Deborah Salem Smith and Laura Kepley kept encountering the phrase "American values" and decided to create another work that would somehow ex plore those values.
From that broad idea they soon narrowed their focus to the issue of free speech, then homed in even more closely on Mann's often controversial photographs, many of which show her children in the nude. The images are disquieting, haunting, eerily beautiful evocations of the profound and mundane mysteriousness of family life - in my opinion; in others', they're kiddie porn. Clearly, there's rich stuff here for drama.
Smith, who wrote "Some Things Are Private," and Kepley, who directed it, make the most of this polarizing material. Like "Boots," "Some Things Are Private" draws on interviews, articles, and other documentary artifacts, but it goes further than the earlier work in fictionalizing from its sources - so far, in fact, that Smith and Kepley subtitle it "a surreal docu-drama."
Rather than leading to a queasy blurring of reality and fiction, however, the carefully crafted result provokes us to consider how often any art performs this kind of alchemy: to take the reality of the artist's world, then frame it, distill it, compose it into something that both is and isn't "real." In the play (as she did in the public record, from which almost all her lines here are drawn), Mann calls this seeing through her "photo eyes" - looking at what's right in front of her, but looking at it specifically as an artist.
As she points out, all her images of her children, naked and not, are the kind of things any mother sees all the time. But that hasn't stopped a host of critics from attacking her for exploiting her children, violating their innocence, or pandering - wittingly or not - to pedophiles. (One of the most shocking ironies in the play concerns an infamous critique in "a national US newspaper" whose name is bleeped whenever the actors try to speak it, because the newspaper's owners refused permission to use the name onstage; a cursory online search reveals it's The Wall Street Journal, which should be ashamed.)
To its infinite credit, "Some Things Are Private" does not reduce such critics to shrill right-wing cliches. Instead, it creates a fictional character - "an accountant," one narrator says, handing him a pencil; "no, a lawyer," another corrects, and swaps the pencil for a cellphone - who chances upon the photographs in a gallery and is dismayed by them.
On paper, this could sound a little too formulaic. But on Wilson Chin's sublimely metaphoric/realistic set it comes richly to life, in part because of Stephen Thorne's passionate, open performance as the lawyer, Thomas Kramer, and Anne Scurria's smarts and heart in the role of Sally Mann. They're never just talking heads; they're characters, with families and back stories and heartaches and, most important, the ability to make each other think and feel.
The arguments between Kramer and Mann form the center of the action, rounded out by interactions with museum guards, journalists, politicians, family members, and other participants, all portrayed by three versatile actors, company members Janice Duclos and Rachael Warren and guest artist Richard Donelly. In just 90 minutes, the show manages to give us a clear sense of Mann's work and the issues it raises, as well as many larger, related questions of freedom, privacy, and personal integrity.
For all that, it's also great fun - never preachy, often humorous, and suffused throughout with a mixture of emotional warmth and intellectual engagement that's only too rare in contemporary culture. At first, you may wonder why you're not seeing more of Mann's photographs; early on a projection shows us a delightful "flip book" of her pregnant body, then a reverent, somber portrait of her father taken moments after his death, but for a long time after that we're watching people look at blank walls or empty space while discussing the works they pretend to see.
Have faith. The work reveals itself in time, and when it does it is all the more meaningful and affecting for the words that have swirled around it in its absence. By the end, when photographic images and actors' movements coalesce in a quintessentially theatrical moment, you realize that "Some Things Are Private" is talking about the complexity and brilliance of Mann's art by being, itself, a complex and brilliant work of art.
Louise Kennedy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.