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Good company

Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas were friends of some of the most important artists of the 20th century _ Picasso, Matisse, Apollinaire and all the other painters, writers and musicians who beat a path to the pair's salon at their house in Paris.

So where did the actors and director of Win Wells' Gertrude Stein and a Companion, which opens tonight at American Stage, go to do research? To a museum, naturally.

"What would you like to look at?" Mildred Destry asked, leading director John Berglund and Elizabeth Dimon (who plays Gertrude) and Susan Alexander (who plays Alice) into a gallery of French impressionist pictures at the Museum of Fine Arts on Monday morning. Destry, a docent at the museum, was giving them a little tour of artworks related to Stein and Toklas.

"There are three Monets, and that one really gives you an idea of impressionism," Destry said, pointing to The Houses of Parliament: Effect of Fog.

On another wall was Cezanne's Un Coin de Bois. "Cezanne was the first modern painter," Destry said. "He wanted you to see intellectually the forms of nature _ the cylinder, the cone and the cube."

Destry then popped La Belle Epoque into a VCR and showed the documentary on a large screen. It's about the years leading up to World War I, a gilded era when "the world was divided into the elite _ and everybody else," said Diana Vreeland, the legendary Vogue editor, in an interview in the film.

"This is the way Gertrude might have been brought up," Destry said as footage of fashionable people in oceanfront mansions played across the screen.

"Right, because Gertrude never had to work," Berglund said.

"It must have been fantastic," Destry said. "To have enough money to live on and all those wonderful friends."

Later, Berglund said the museum visit was helpful because "it gave us a stronger fix on the world that Gertrude and Alice came out of, and why the ideas they cultivated were so influential in their own time."

The popular image of Stein and Toklas has shifted over the decades. For much of her life, Stein was chiefly famous for obscure aphorisms. "Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose" was her line. It was also Stein who said of Oakland, Calif., where she grew up, that "There is no there there."

Stein's arcane, difficult prose style made works such as The Making of Americans, a thousand-page tome that she intended to be a history of a "decent family's progress," virtually unreadable. Her books were more talked about than read until The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, which was not written by Toklas but by Stein, who cranked it out in six weeks. It was a best-seller in 1934.

After Stein died in 1946, Toklas' career as a writer began. The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook became a kind of classic, with its famous recipe for hashish brownies. Her memoir What Is Remembered was well received, and an entertaining collection of her correspondence was published.

In the 1960s, Stein and Toklas were turned into feminist icons. As lesbians who lived and loved openly together for 40 years, they were seen as role models of women not afraid to be themselves.

American Stage's production of Gertrude Stein and a Companion was set in motion in somewhat roundabout fashion. Last year, when the theater was having a fund-raiser, Dimon dressed up as Stein. "When I saw Beth, I thought, aha, here is someone who could do Gertrude," said artistic director Victoria Holloway. "I'd been looking for a play to do in Women's History Month."

Holloway originally planned to stage Gertrude Stein, Gertrude Stein, Gertrude Stein, a one-woman play by Marty Martin that Pat Carroll had performed with great success in the early '80s. But Carroll holds the rights and wouldn't let the theater do the play.

Dimon had a copy of Wells' play and gave it to Holloway, who decided it was worth doing. "I think this is a very interesting treatment," she said. "It's a great way to look back at the artists of the '20s."

Destry, Berglund, Dimon and Alexander went out for lunch when the museum tour was over, and they talked about what made Stein and Toklas tick. "Gertrude once said that the beauty of the French was their appreciation of everyday life," Berglund said.

"That's why they were such a good team," Alexander said. "Alice was in charge of daily life, and Gertrude was the great thinker."

Wells' script is sprinkled with French phrases, and the actors learned to pronounce them with help from Destry, a retired French teacher. "On the night you come, I don't want to know you're there," Dimon told her. "I'd be too nervous about my pronunciation."

Destry smiled. "Oh, don't worry. You get better every time I hear you."


Gertrude Stein and a Companion

The play by Win Wells opens at 8 tonight and runs through March 27 at American Stage. Tickets are $14-$22. Call 822-8814.