Henri Matisse (1869-1954). When you think of his work, you probably think of one of his paintings, maybe the "Red Studio," or one of his late-life cutouts, like the "Blue Nudes." But Matisse considered his greatest work to be his last one — the chapel at Vence, in the south of France, that he designed, complete with stained glass windows, murals and altarpiece, just before he died.
The story behind the chapel, and the aged artist's relationship with the young nun who inspired it, is the theme of "The Color of Light," having its world premiere at the Tenth Avenue Art Center in San Diego.
Written by Jesse Kornbluth, a New York-based author, screenwriter and self-described online "cultural concierge," the play is produced and directed by Dori Salois and Robert Salerno, a La Jolla couple who have been presenting pop-up theatrical productions around San Diego for more than three decades. As Vantage Theatre, they embrace the unusual, but as a tiny production company, it's really unusual for them to have snared a world premiere, and such a promising one — a "spiritual romance" that has been evoking interest from New York City producers since its Jan. 11 opening.
"The Color of Light" is a winter-spring love story that results in a spiritual awakening for the ailing, wheelchair-bound artist and an artistic awakening for the student nurse, confidante and reluctant model, who is dedicated to her religious calling. Matisse, a lifelong atheist, creates what has been called "a jewel box of the spirit" because of his feelings for Monique, aka Sister Jacques-Marie, who becomes his collaborator.
The backstory of the Vantage production could be a play in itself. As Salois tells it: "It all started with a bite. When my daughter, Dominique, was four years old, I took her to preschool, and sent her over to play with another kid in the room. The kid, Lily Kornbluth, bit her. Her father, Richard, called me to apologize and invite us to dinner. It turned out that, when he was in medical school in New York, Robert's mother — a physician, who now lives near us — was his teacher. Richard is Jesse's brother — the Kornbluth family has lived in La Jolla for ages. They recently celebrated their mother's 100th birthday here."
Jesse Kornbluth originally called Salois to ask about the novel she wrote and published last year, "Mrs. Bennett's Sentiments." He wanted to know how she managed to get People Magazine to feature it. In the course of their conversation, he mentioned that he had just written a play — his first.
"Send it to me," Salois said. He did, and she loved it, and showed it to Robert ... and the rest is, or could be, theater history. "The Color of Light" may not be exactly "the next Hamilton" as Robert suggested in his intro to the show, but it's an art-filled delight, with characters you actually care about.
O.P. Hadley is wonderful as Matisse — he even looks like the artist, and the director as well, since Salerno looks a bit like Matisse himself. And Cecily Keppel is charming and convincing as Monique/Sister Jacques-Marie. The rest of the cast is fine, too, and the large-scale projections of Matisse's works (assembled by Salerno with Matisse Estate permission) are a definite plus.
"The Color of Light" could use a bit of tightening in some places and fleshing out in others, but it should have a bright future ahead.
In Act 2, Matisse, considering his design for the chapel, talks about wanting to "create a sense of vastness in a very narrow space ... an environment that lifts spirits up." Vantage Theater has done that at the Tenth Avenue Arts Center. See it while you can, and come early to check out the three-artist exhibition on the third floor and have a little pre-show wine and cheese.
• IF YOU GO: "The Color of Light" performances are 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 4 p.m. Sunday through Feb. 3, 2018 at Tenth Avenue Arts Center, 930 10th Ave., San Diego. Parking lots nearby. Tickets: $30. (619) 940-6813. vantagetheatre.com
• Jody Catlin, who plays Sister Jacques-Marie's Mother Superior, is also the mother of Yvette Deas, who curated the third-floor art exhibit and is one of the exhibiting artists.
• For a first-hand account of the story that inspired "The Color of Light," watch "A Model for Matisse," a documentary available on Vimeo and Netflix that features the no-longer-young but still charming Sister Jacques-Marie. She died at 84 in 2005, and is buried near the chapel.