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'Pictures From Home' reveals backstory of a best-selling photo memoir

Sharr White's gripping drama at Florida Studio Theatre explores the fallout of a salesman's pursuit of the American dream.

Gil Brady, Jean Tafler and Kraig Swartz star in "Pictures From Home," playing through Feb. 18 at FST's Keating Theatre.
Gil Brady, Jean Tafler and Kraig Swartz star in "Pictures From Home," playing through Feb. 18 at FST's Keating Theatre.
Image courtesy of John Jones
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Sharr White’s “Pictures from Home” is now on stage at Florida Studio Theatre. His 2023 play is an adaptation of the late Larry Sultan’s 1992 photo memoir. The photographer wanted to capture his family’s story. The playwright captured the story of how he did it. And why.

Larry Sultan (Gil Brady) taught photography at the San Francisco Art Institute. He also pursued his own independent photography projects. Sometime during the Reagan administration, he stumbled across a box of home movies in his parents' garage. That’s how Sultan'’s “Pictures from Home” project began.

After repeated visits, Sultan isolated thousands of stills from these films. He also interviewed his parents, and took candid and staged photos as well. The resulting family chronicle mostly focuses on Larry’s father — Irving Sultan (Kraig Swartz). And his story’s worth telling.

Back in the 1950s, Irving made a bet on himself. He left a dead-end job in New York City and moved his family to Southern California. Irving’s gamble paid off. He eventually became a mid-level executive at the Schick Razor Corporation. Throughout his career rise, Irving projected an image of manly success. 

That image was the core of his identity. It’s plain to see in the posed photos at the height of Irving’s career. (Larry hated those artificial photos.) Irving held onto his heroic image after Schick got rid of him like a disposable razor blade. 

But Larry wanted to think outside the frame. In the course of his many visits to his parents' home, he tried to capture candid shots revealing his father’s vulnerability. The most famous of these is an image of his father napping on the couch looking tired and vulnerable. (Irving hated these photos.) Larry recorded and transcribed their arguments and included them in his book. The playwright turned them into actual dialogue.

“Pictures from Home” is built from photographs and recordings. It’s a memory play that’s actually based on documented reality. But the form it takes is far from realistic. Larry’s photos and his father’s home movie stills are periodically projected on the walls. Any family member can call out for any image on demand — as if a projectionist were living in the house. Director Kate Alexander nicely captures this weird remembrance of things past.

Brady’s Larry has a childlike air of perplexed sincerity. His character’s a pilgrim on a quest without a map. His Larry doesn’t know the answers about his family history — and doesn’t try to impose his own preconceived ideas. While his father Irving (Swartz) is on a downhill slide during the years the play unfolds, he was a real hard charger in his younger days. 

Irving was charismatic, inventive and hardworking — and he’s still proud of it. Swartz nicely evokes the fire and pride that still burns in his character. Larry’s mother, Jean (Jean Tafler), stays in the background initially, but comes into her own in the play’s second half. A fire burns in her soul, too. You discover that Jean’s a Realtor with a track record of million-dollar sales. Who’s been supporting her unemployed husband for the last 16 years.

Isabel and Moriah Curley-Clay’s set is a realistic empty nest — with exceptions for the play’s surreal touches. Daniel Ciba’s costumes reflect both the play’s time period and the passages in the characters’ lives. Larry dresses like a low-income college professor would have in the 1980s; his retired SoCal parents wear attire befitting their circumstances. (Ciba’s garb also echoes the clothes worn by Jean and Irving in the old home movies.) Andrew Gray’s lighting and Thom Korp’s projections serve the play’s story. Or stories.

“Pictures from Home” could have told the tale of a great American salesman’s rise and fall. But it’s a Russian doll narrative. Irving’s story unfolds inside Larry’s story. This includes both the story of Larry’s relationship with his father, and his artistic struggle to complete his latest project. As Larry’s project revolves around his father, that makes his job harder. Irving isn’t fictional or dead. He’s very real and very much alive. When Irving doesn’t like Larry’s photos, he lets Larry know with blunt force.

Imagine “A Christmas Carol” as a play in which Charles Dickens interviewed a real-life Scrooge who was constantly pushing back against the author’s negative portrayal.

Larry wanted to photograph his aging father’s reality, not his image. His father thought he was trying to make him look decrepit and weak.

At one point, Irving shouts, “It’s your pictures — but it’s my image!”

Throughout this play, father and son fight to get the story straight. They never see eye to eye. But, after 10 years, Larry finishes his project. His photo memoir and the accompanying 2014 exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art made his reputation. That success pleases Larry’s father. But Irving and Jean don’t have long to live. They both die early in the new century. Larry dies too, of a rare form of sarcoma. At the age of 63. His attempt to capture time doesn’t stop time.

But White’s play poignantly distills the moments that Larry Sultan saved.

Make time to see it, if you can.



Marty Fugate

Marty Fugate is a writer, cartoonist and voiceover actor whose passions include art, architecture, performance, film, literature, politics and technology. As a freelance writer, he contributes to a variety of area publications, including the Observer, Sarasota Magazine and The Herald Tribune. His fiction includes sketch comedy, short stories and screenplays. “Cosmic Debris,” his latest anthology of short stories, is available on Amazon.

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