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From the Hoppers' dramatic life, a play

Playwright Kevin Rice, with the Hoppers' house in Truro behind him, wrote 'Hopper's Ghosts' to explore the dynamic of the two artists' marriage. Playwright Kevin Rice, with the Hoppers' house in Truro behind him, wrote "Hopper's Ghosts" to explore the dynamic of the two artists' marriage. (Vincent DeWitt for the Boston Globe)
By Laura Collins-Hughes
Globe Staff / August 15, 2010

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PROVINCETOWN — Chris McCarthy gazes out the window of a second-floor studio at the Provincetown Art Association and Museum, looking past the buildings on the other side of Commercial Street to the slice of harbor beyond. Across the water, only a few miles of curving shoreline away, are the dunes of Truro. It’s early afternoon as she speaks, but she’s talking about the sunset: the particular way Truro looks from Provincetown in the light of the sinking sun.

“It’s called the fires of Truro,’’ says McCarthy, the museum’s executive director. “It looks like it’s on fire. It’s like orange balls of light, and purple and pink and yellow.’’

High atop one of those dunes, above a broad and shimmering expanse of Cape Cod Bay, sits the pristine white cottage where the painter Edward Hopper and his wife, Josephine Nivison Hopper, also a painter but a thwarted one, came summer after summer for decades, starting in the 1930s. Like innumerable artists before and since, they were drawn to the abundant, unobstructed light of the Outer Cape.

Why they were drawn to each other — why they clung to each other over 43 years of a tumultuous, sometimes violent marriage, until his death in 1967 — is open to interpretation. “Hopper’s Ghosts,’’ a play by Kevin Rice that is making its world premiere through Aug. 28 at Payomet Performing Arts Center in Truro, imagines what happened inside their relationship, a union that has come to be seen largely through the lens of Jo Hopper’s voluminous diaries. Of the taciturn Edward’s thoughts on the marriage, like his thoughts on most other matters, there is little record.

“I have to be hopeful,’’ says Rice, a Wellfleet playwright who is also Payomet’s artistic director. “You know, you’ll hear different stories about them and their relationship, their enmity toward one another. But it’s difficult to believe that they were able to remain married for so long and not have achieved some understanding.’’

Fittingly, then, “Hopper’s Ghosts’’ is a comedy, not a tragedy — albeit a comedy whose two characters are already dead, skittering through time as they reenact and reimagine their life together, and his paintings.

“Do you ever get tired of painting me?’’ asks Jo, who served as the model for virtually all of the women in her husband’s paintings starting from the time of their marriage in 1924, when they were both 41.

“What makes you think it’s you?’’ Edward replies.

In the play, which is directed by Daisy Walker, Jo describes herself as Edward’s “devoted wife a.k.a. secretary, spokesman, cook, model, manager, fantasy object cum domestic abuse victim.’’ The phrasing is Rice’s, but the details are taken from life.

Though Edward and Jo had studied at the same New York art school and she had exhibited alongside Picasso, Man Ray, and Georgia O’Keeffe, he demeaned her art and didn’t believe women could paint. More successful than Edward was when they wed, Jo championed him and managed his career, which flourished at last, even as hers withered. Opinion about her art, so far as it exists these days, tends to echo McCarthy’s: “Some of her early work was really quite lovely.’’

After they married, her painting changed, and not for the better. Jo’s life, Rice says, “shifted from her having a career to her career mainly consisting of living in his shadow. And what did that do to her own creativity and her own need to create?’’

The detailed diaries that Jo kept for more than 30 years — upon which art historian Gail Levin drew heavily for her landmark 1995 book, “Edward Hopper: An Intimate Biography’’ — build a rather bitter case against her husband. “As a human being, he doesn’t qualify,’’ she wrote. But the voluble Jo did not shrink from fighting back when they clashed, whether verbally or physically, and the give-and-take can make her appear to be a shrew. Even the actors in “Hopper’s Ghosts,’’ Rice says, used the word “sadistic’’ to describe her at one point. “I said, Whoa, let’s stop short of sadistic. There is teasing, there’s taunting, gibing, but it’s not that extreme.’’

The playwright’s sympathies are largely with Jo, not Edward, in part because of the tremendous power imbalance in the marriage — an imbalance more severe than that of famous artist pairs like Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, or O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz.

“It’s always fascinating when you have couples who are artists living together because it creates a whole other level of a relationship,’’ Rice says. “There’s always a tension.’’

A huge part of Jo’s role in the marriage was providing the stability and constructing the zone of safety that artists tend to require to take the risks they need to take in their work, Rice says. Jo was the buffer between Edward and the outside world. If people wanted to get to him, they had to go through her. Another of her tasks was inventing what Rice calls “the Great Man mythology’’ about Edward: the sort of lore that surrounds all icons and tends to erase the contributions of the people around them — spouses very much included.

Forty-three years after his death, and despite whatever corrosive effect Jo’s diaries may have had on his reputation, Edward Hopper remains an icon. On the Cape, visitors’ curiosity about him leads them to seek out the Truro cottage where he lived, the scenery he is rumored to have painted — and his work, if they can find it.

At the Provincetown Art Association and Museum, an exhibition of his early drawings closed last month. (Some related works on paper remain on view through Sept. 5 at the nearby Berta Walker Gallery.) In the gift shop, he’s well represented with cards and books, but the museum’s collection includes only one Hopper, donated a decade ago, and it isn’t his.

In a recessed corner of office space upstairs, just to the left of the photocopier and easy to miss, hangs a muted green landscape in oil on canvas, neatly signed in the lower right-hand corner: “Jo N. Hopper.’’

Jo, who died in 1968, was particular about the titles for her husband’s work, but this piece is undated and evidently untitled. When McCarthy lifts it off the wall, she turns it to show its backside. Attached to the upper left-hand corner are a few torn bits of paper, deeply browned with age, whose fragments of handwriting might once have given that information.

This unremarkable oil isn’t exactly what people expect when they ask to see the museum’s Hopper. “It’s Jo Hopper,’’ McCarthy says, “but we’re glad to have it anyway, we really are, because she did live here on Outer Cape Cod.’’

There are still, in the towns near the tip of the Cape, people who knew the Hoppers. As part of his research for the play, Rice says, he interviewed nearly a dozen of them. Some were neighborhood children in the years after World War II, when one of the summer kids was a teenage Roy Scheider. The boldest of the bunch, he would knock on the Hoppers’ door, get invited in, and later tell his friends he’d had tea with the famous man — who was careful to cover up any canvas he was working on so the boy could not see it.

It conjures an intriguing tableau: the man who painted “Nighthawks’’ communing with the kid who would star in “Jaws.’’ But who’s to say whether it ever really happened?

“This place,’’ McCarthy says, “you can hear the same story told 15 different ways, with 15 different outcomes. So whatever you believe, you take with a grain of salt.’’

For a storyteller like Rice, the wealth of possible narratives was part of the allure of making a play about the Hoppers’ marriage. Much the same is true for people looking at Edward Hopper’s art.

“In many of his paintings,’’ Rice says, “it’s very difficult to tell what the relationship is between the characters.’’

And so the speculation begins.

Laura Collins-Hughes can be reached at lcollins-hughes@globe.com.

HOPPER’S GHOSTS At: Payomet Performing Arts Center, Truro, through Aug. 28. Tickets $25. 508-487-5400, www.ppactruro.org