An ear for an ear

Not every actor would willingly trade pointy-eared celebrity for single-eared obscurity.

But in March 1981, Leonard Nimoy debuted in Minneapolis as the star of his own one-man show about the life of Vincent van Gogh. It was an idea at which theater pundits initially scoffed: An actor like Nimoy — best known for portraying the hyper-logical Mr. Spock in the original Star Trek, and for his narration work on the campy, occult-ish TV series In Search Of — producing a serious work?

The actor had spent years crafting the production based on his own painstaking study of the real-life letters passed between the tortured painter and his brother and patron, Theo, an art-dealer.

And once critics had tired of making jokes, they actually viewed the play. And instantly, they were switching tracks, marveling about how little the world had really seen of Nimoy’s talents.

The true heart of Vincent was often attributed to the emotional subtleties of Nimoy’s mellow-voiced portrayal of the two van Gogh brothers (as well as several key people in their lives). And while cracks about Nimoy’s “logical” and “warp-powered” performances still surfaced, the actor’s work was largely heralded as an excellent piece of theater.

And then in January 1983, after a highly successful two-year tour capped by a run on Broadway and a PBS special, Nimoy retreated forever from his Vincent.

For the next 10 years, little was done with the play — until a copy of the script arrived at Jim Jarrett’s house.

The struggling actor/acting coach was on sabbatical in Hawaii at the time; no doubt the last thing he expected to find in his mailbox was a play that would set the pace of his life for the next decade. In fact, the cover page contained a clue to that fate.

There was a note from the former student of Jarrett’s who’d sent him the script; it read simply: “This play was written for you.”

“So, I’m looking at it,” begins Jarrett, who recently spoke to Xpress on his cell during a break from his eighth-season tour of Vincent. “I’m thinking that the play is about Vincent van Gogh, the wacko [who] cut off his ear — who cares? Then, I see that it was authored by Leonard Nimoy — and for me, that was strike two.

“I hated Star Trek,” admits Jarrett with a groan. “As far as I was concerned, these were two characters I could really care less for.”

But just to be nice, Jarrett read the script, reluctantly. He didn’t want to like it, but he soon understood what his former student had seen in it.

The play, set a week after Vincent’s death, is told through the character of Theo, who prepares a lecture on his late brother’s works after being too heartbroken to even speak at Vincent’s funeral. What Theo creates is both a touching memoir and an apology for an artist far ahead of his time.

Even on the page, it’s an emotional piece of dramatic writing; to pull it off would take an actor with immense discipline and a near-obsession with the material — someone, for instance, like Nimoy.

As a disciple of the Sanford Meisner method of acting, which stresses thoughtful psyche-mining over melodrama, Jarrett had to admit that Vincent did indeed fit him perfectly. He immediately began trying to secure the rights to perform the play.

He then spent the next two-and-a-half years rehearsing and revising the script into a multimedia show that’s gained nearly as much critical success as did Nimoy’s original run.

Under Jarrett’s watch, Vincent became an unlikely smash hit in Hawaii, playing for six weeks in a theater that usually sees plays run for only a weekend. By sheer chance, a vacationing Bruce Willis and Demi Moore saw the show, and invited Jarrett to perform his production at their theater in Sun Valley, Idaho, that same Christmas. Those performances in turn led to an international tour now booked almost two years in advance.

Yet even after a decade now of being Vincent, Jarrett insists the one-man theatrical work still challenges him.

“To turn that cold piece of paper into a believable human being,” he admits, “is an incredible acting hurdle.”

UNCA’s Lipinsky Auditorium presents Jim Jarrett in Vincent, a play by Leonard Nimoy, on Tuesday, April 13 at 8 p.m. Tickets ($15/general admission) are available at Malaprop’s Bookstore/Cafe or at the Lipinsky box office. For more information or to order tickets by phone, call 232-5000.


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