Alice Neel wasn't the cuddliest of characters. Her paintings of the heavy hitters of the New York art world repeatedly border on the grotesque, as the artist deliberately amplifies physical injury, deformity and the deterioration of age. Small wonder she called herself "a collector of souls" and "a sympathetic, or sometimes not so sympathetic translator."
Playwright Ann Marie Oliva discovered Neel when her own daughter started demonstrating artistic ability. "I figured I'd better start reading about women artists," she recalls. "Most artists' stories aren't that dramatic, but Alice's was."
Throughout Neel's life (1900-1984), she struggled with an American society not yet ready to accept women on a number of levels. After an early marriage to a Cuban artist, Neel vacillated between relationships with a mercurial sailor--who deliberately destroyed hundreds of her canvases--and one with a member of the Rothschild family. Freedom was all-important: For decades she painted in obscurity in Spanish Harlem, until she was "discovered" by the Whitney Museum in the early 1970s, and embraced by the women's movement as a hero.
The New World Stage production of Alice Neel has seen Oliva's play grow from a one-act, one-woman show to a full-length work. Jerome Davis, the head of Raleigh's Burning Coal Theater Company, directs in his first collaboration with the company.