How 'Pictures From Home' provides a unique snapshot of a family
The cast and creative team share what to expect from this artsy new drama starring Nathan Lane, Danny Burstein, and Zoë Wanamaker.
Family dramas are a Broadway staple: Leopoldstadt, Death of a Salesman, and The Piano Lesson are just a few from this theatre season alone. So are biographical accounts, from Walking With Ghosts to A Beautiful Noise. Slightly less numerous, though no less noteworthy, are shows about art: This season's The Collaboration and the Sondheim classic Sunday in the Park With George are some high-profile examples.
Why mention these three seemingly disparate genres? Because Pictures From Home, the latest Broadway play from Sharr White, is all of them at once. He weaves themes of parent-child bonds, family legacy, and the purpose of art all into one multimedia show, at Studio 54 from January 13.
And yet, it's a fairly small-scale production, albeit with big-name star power. Danny Burstein, Nathan Lane, and Zoë Wanamaker are the entire cast, playing the late real-life photographer Larry Sultan (Burstein) and his parents, Irving (Lane) and Jean (Wanamaker). Sultan was known as "the master of color photography," as Lane described him, who blended documentary and staged photography to comment on American life. In the late 80s, he applied his skills closer to home, making Irving and Jean the subjects of his most personal project.
The result was a photo memoir, also titled Pictures From Home, featuring Sultan's shots, stills from home movies, and even text from conversations between Sultan and his parents. Critics exalt the memoir as Sultan's way of immortalizing his parents, but as noble as it sounds, that doesn't mean the project always went smoothly behind the scenes. And that's where White's play comes in.
Pictures From Home as a family drama
White dramatizes, in two hours, the 10 years Larry Sultan spent regularly returning to his parents' house to meticulously photograph and interview them. He also explores Larry's multiple motives. Larry dives into the imperfections beneath his parents' idyllic, all-American life in their California home, both to preserve the truest and most complete version of his parents, and to make a statement about the myth of the perfect "American Dream."
As one might imagine, uncovering one's parents' flaws sets the stage for plenty of tension.
"These people just try to go about their lives while their son investigates them like the FBI — and they allowed this for a decade!" said Lane. "I can't even imagine doing that for more than maybe two weeks."
"[Sultan]'s living in San Francisco and they're in the San Fernando Valley," echoed Burstein. (That's an approximately 6-hour drive.) "I don't know how they ever agreed to let him do it."
On top of all that, the fact that Irving "doesn't like one picture [Larry]'s taken," according to Lane, made the project even more taxing for all involved. But Lane and Burstein both said that they also want to portray how, beneath the bickering, the Sultans shared a deep bond, evidenced by the fact that they put in all this time and work for each other.
"A decade!" Lane restated. "It does prove they love their son that much."
"I want to bring out the fact that... [Larry] was a loving son and has an ultimately beautiful relationship with his parents," said Burstein.
Pictures From Home as a show about legacy
There's a rather famous Broadway musical known for the line, "Who lives? Who dies? Who tells your story?" Those questions are also a source of drama in Pictures From Home.
"In the book are these running arguments between he and his father about ownership of image, ownership of family, who gets to keep the family narrative," said White. "This is a generational conversation we all have."
In the play, each character often talks directly to the audience, trying to get them on board with their point of view. The parents, especially Irving, contest the way Larry captures them in his photos.
"They're not all just candid shots; he poses them," said Lane. "If you see these photographs, the framing and the way he set them up, they're gorgeous. They're extraordinary. And the father finds that infuriating because he thinks it's all phony."
The irony is that Irving, too, "always posed the mother like a model," said White. "Irv always hated that Larry took photos that showed her mortality."
All three Sultans know memory is in the eye of the beholder, so Pictures From Home also becomes the story of a power struggle. Who gets to control how people, from their family to strangers, will see them for years to come?
At the same time the characters are concerned with the future, they're also concerned with the past. Larry embarks on the Pictures From Home project to know his parents more deeply — and potentially in a different, more complete way than they preserved their history for him.
"It's about memory," said Wanamaker. "It's about going backwards in our lives and finding out who we are."
Pictures From Home as a meditation on art
The Pictures From Home book was also, perhaps, a means for Larry to share his artistic career with his parents and show them how fruitful it was. "I don't think it really sunk in that he was rather successful," said Lane.
"He was quite celebrated, had done books before, and was teaching in San Francisco, and they don't get it. As the mother says, 'We just would like a couple of nice pictures for the fridge.'"
In his portrayal, Burstein wants to honor that about Larry. "I want to bring out the fact that he was a very serious artist," he said. "He put a lot of thought into his projects, and there is great depth in his work."
Burstein also described Pictures From Home as "about the artistic process and how art is created." And it is, warts and all. Audiences get to see the messiness — Larry's fights with his parents, his struggle to finish the project, his development of his creative vision — behind his beautiful shots.
Audiences will witness the result of all that work, too — lots of Sultan's actual photos from the Pictures From Home book (some of which are pictured above) are projected throughout the play. Essentially, the show becomes a visit to an art gallery and a show all in one.
And after seeing these photos, audiences can come away from Pictures From Home with their own opinions and questions. Did Larry succeed in making something authentic? Is it all contrived? What is the purpose of turning memories into art?
"It's an intersection of time and media and spaces all at once," said director Bartlett Sher. "That has really been a pleasure to put together especially for me, wanting to push the boundaries on what is possible in the theatre and how we think about that particular medium from completely new points of view. This gives us a chance to intersect art and life."
Get Pictures From Home tickets now.
Top image credit: Nathan Lane, Sharr White, Zoë Wanamaker, Bartlett Sher, and Danny Burstein. (Photo by Michaelah Reynolds)
In-article images credit: The photography of Larry Sultan. (Photos by Gillian Russo)
Originally published on