Fearless women are playwright Claudia Shear’s specialty. Her first play, Blown Sideways Through Life, was a lightly fictionalized account of how Shear–a short, overweight, and self-described working-class gal from Brooklyn–held 64 different day jobs while waiting for her big break as an actress. She followed that up with Dirty Blonde, a piece about the indomitable Mae West.

Now, the main character of Shear’s latest play, a lovely dramedy called Restoration, is a forty-something art historian named Giulia who talks her way into the once-in-a-millennium opportunity to restore Michelangelo’s David.  When, later in the play, another character asks Giulia why she isn’t married, she responds, without missing a beat, “Because I’m weird, aggressive, successful, and picky.”

The line gets a big laugh from the audience at the New York Theatre Workshop, where Restoration is playing through June 13. By this point, the audience members have gotten to know Giulia, who’s winningly played by Shear herself, and can appreciate how perfectly the adjectives sum up the character.

But those words also aptly describe the playwright. In fact, the line is the exact answer Shear gave when her now-husband asked the same why-aren’t-you-married question when they first met at the wedding of a mutual friend. And the no-nonsense attitude the description expresses is what has allowed Shear to knock down, leap over, and wholly transform barriers that might have held back a less determined person.

“Yes, I’m a short woman, I’m overweight, I’m not particularly beautiful but I have lived a life so varied because I have never let that define the life I was going to live,” she says. “I feel we do ourselves a disservice by latching on to negative things. I mean, Yes, there are negative things that help define us. But none of this has ever stopped me.”

It’s been nearly ten years since Shear has had a new play in New York. Part of that time was spent caring for her ailing mother.  She also worked on various projects that didn’t pan out.  And, of course, she got married. But a few years ago, Shear read an article about Cinzia Parnigoni, the woman who really did spruce up the David in time for the statue’s 500th anniversary in 2004. Parnigoni’s passion for her work impressed Shear and inspired Restoration. It had its world premiere last summer at the La Jolla Playhouse, where Shear’s good friend and frequent directorial collaborator Christopher Ashley is artistic director.

Shear spent a year or so researching the world of art restoration, including befriending Parnigoni, but the story she wound up telling is, she says, a total fabrication. Or as an inscription in the Playbill for the current production puts it, “Everything about the David is true; everything else is fiction.” Parnigoni, for example, “is nothing like Giulia,” Shear says, adding that the restorer came to the show’s opening night and found the play “hilarious.”

It will come as no surprise that the David isn’t the only one in Restoration who gets a makeover. At the beginning of the play Giulia is an outcast in the art world. Her maverick and outspoken views on how to clean and repair rare works have gotten her exiled to a lonely and lowly job teaching art appreciation courses at Brooklyn College. She’s rescued when her former art professor and mentor helps her get the David assignment. The job takes Giulia to Florence, where she has just a year to get the statue in shape for its quincentenary celebration.

The rest of the 90-minute play is divided into short scenes that correspond to the months that Giulia works on the statue—which, for most of the play, set designer Scott Pask reveals only in small sections that are cleverly framed by scaffolding. As Giulia makes her way around the catwalk, she also interacts with the museum’s staffers, including Daphne, the beautiful but haughty head of publicity, and Max, the hunky guard who’s assigned to watch over the David.

So all the elements are in place for one of those predictable—and guiltily pleasurable—journeys that scores of movies and books have taught us to expect: the comeuppance of the snooty, thin rival, a life-changing love affair with the sexy Italian guy. But, as you also might expect, Shear resists the temptation to walk that cliché-strewn path.

Giulia openly admits to envying Daphne’s beauty (“I don’t believe there’s anybody who wouldn’t want that,” says Shear. “It doesn’t have to be the driving force of your life but it’s dishonest to act as if it doesn’t exist.”) But Daphne (given a lovely, nuanced performance by Tina Benko) isn’t reduced to some cartoonish villain. “I know women who are beautiful and who are wealthy, and they have tremendous problems and feel the same things abut themselves that everybody feels,” explains Shear. “So how can I know people and love them and know their stories and not give them the benefit of humanity?”

And although some sexual tension does develop between Giulia and Max (charmingly played by the truly hunky Jonathan Cake), their relationship is primarily a friendship. “I didn’t want it to be a romance,” says Shear. “I believe that work relationships are very potent, very powerful. Somebody understands you. Somebody gets the joke. I’ve had profound friendships in workplaces.”

Through it all, however, the paramount relationship for Giulia remains the connection she has with her work. And that’s important to Shear too, who maintains a fierce belief in the redemptive powers of art and work. “The thing that drives Giulia is that she has an overarching passion, an overarching competence. She is transported by the things she comes in contact with,” Shear explains.  “Part of her emotional journey is to find the balance [in her life], but she at no point says, This is no longer interesting to me. I don’t care about art.”

It’s unthinkable that she or her creator could feel otherwise. They are, after all, fearless women.

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