For every public sculpture that reels people in — like The Bean — there’s a Richard Serra somewhere, getting under their skin. For every Monet that makes people swoon, there’s a Takashi Murakami that makes them woozy. Beauty remains in the eye of the beholder. But these days, it’s auction prices rather than aesthetics that garner attention; art as an asset seems sexier than the idea that a painting can soothe or excite. Yet with “The Rembrandt,” playwright Jessica Dickey has found in art a jumping off point to ponder the temporal and the eternal, to question that ancient aphorism “Ars longa, vita brevis”: Art is long, life is short.
Opening at Steppenwolf Theatre next month, “Rembrandt” is set in a museum where a veteran guard, Henry, grooms newbies while his poet partner is dying at home. The painting at the center of attention is Rembrandt’s “Aristotle with a Bust of Homer,” which a young woman has come to copy and which knowledgeable Henry is happy to discuss. “I was definitely meditating on legacy while foraging for this play, which is why this painting caught my attention during a visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art,” Dickey says. “I only had a cursory knowledge of Rembrandt, but I was very moved as I discovered more of his story. Then as the play unfolded, the painting played a huge role in the structure of the story itself.”
That structure takes the play back in time, to Rembrandt’s studio and Homer’s day, before returning to the present and a final encounter with Henry and his partner, Simon, played respectively by John Mahoney and Francis Guinan.
“I find museums incredibly comforting,” Dickey says. “Something about the fact that for centuries, human beings have been falling in love and enduring heartache and searching for meaning — and trying to make beauty in the midst of it all — brings me great comfort.”
Sept. 7-Nov. 5, Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted. For tickets ($20-$99), visit Steppenwolf.org