“Did you come here expecting to see my breasts?” asks Lee Miller (Annie Enneking) in “Behind the Eye,” Carson Kreitzer’s talky one-act that opened Friday at Park Square Theatre in St. Paul.
The provocative opening line perfectly captures the moxie of Miller (1907-1977), a matter-of-fact career woman of ravenous sexual appetites who led a life of freedom at a time when women’s social and career opportunities were highly proscribed.
In the 1920s and ’30s, Miller was a fashion model who appeared on the cover of Vogue and served as muse and occasional lover to such artists as Picasso, Man Ray and Roland Penrose, the British surrealist who became her husband. She also became a war correspondent for Vogue, covering the toll on children and other victims.
If there had been a movie made about Miller, Katharine Hepburn would have been a good bet to play the trailblazer. But we do well in the Twin Cities with Enneking, who dives into the role fearlessly. She has craft and raw power as she tells us about Miller’s life.
Enneking, orbited by a four-member cast that plays all her lovers, friends and son, delivers Miller’s emotional life from childhood, when she is raped as a schoolgirl, and contracts a disease, to death. We also get a sense of what might have driven a young woman whose father took nude images of her as she entered adolescence. We also learn that she got that Vogue cover because magazine publisher Condé Nast rescued her from a traffic accident and saw her potential.
We get most of the info about Miller by being told about it in “Eye,” a one-act directed by Leah Cooper. The play has more verbiage than verb, with plot developments often told instead of shown.
Cooper’s staging nods to Miller’s famous artist friends. She re-creates some of Miller’s famous images, including one of her sitting in a bathtub (Miller was photographed in Hitler’s bathtub).
Kristin Ellert’s often bare set is animated by Michael Kittel’s blue lights to suggest Picasso’s most creative period. Compartments cleverly placed in the set allude to tricks of the eye common to surrealist paintings. Props pop out of walls in drawers, which are then retracted.
A fine cast supports Enneking. Mo Perry changes costumes and characterizations to play a continuum of other women in Miller’s life, including early friend Tanja. Patrick Bailey plays a phlegmatic Man Ray and somewhat distant Penrose. John Riedlinger plays Miller’s son, and Gabriele Angieri plays Picasso and Miller’s Egyptian husband, Aziz.
The play’s purpose, in the end, remains fuzzy. If is it to raise awareness of a liberated proto-feminist, “Eye” succeeds. But if it wants to show us a contemporary looker with ravenous appetites whose accomplishments went well beyond her alluring face, that picture is less clear.