Regional Reviews: St. Louis
Turns out it can, in Life Sucks, Aaron Posner's 2016 re-write of Chekhov's 1899 play, aided in this New Jewish Theatre production by director Edward Coffield. Coffield, who takes the reins next season as Artistic Director at the company, was already a genius of relationship drama when Kathleen Sitzer decided to step down as the Founding Artistic Director after this show and 21 years of excellence of her own. Now, in this moment of transition, Ms. Sitzer bids farewell and director Coffield eases in, giving us a great cast on a dazzling set by Peter and Margery Spack.
The Tolkien-esque stage (a psychedelic dream), glowing with huge flowers, is peopled by characters who seem like the ghosts of a bygone love-in or be-in: ruminating members of some artists' colony out in the country. Or maybe it's just the courtyard of Mrs. Madrigal, from the 1970s "Tales of the City" by Armistead Maupin. But "free love" and a futile sense of duty collide here; and Chekhov's relationship problems are as alive as ever, over loving and being loved.
There's an added sense of theatrical history at work here, too, beyond the torch being passed from Ms. Sitzer to Mr. Coffield: with Jan Meyer, who ran an earlier version of the theater at the JCCA, here as the show's "bonus" past-producer, from the late 1970s and '80s. She's fresh and delightful on stage in Life Sucks as the Mrs. Madrigal sort of character, Babs the "earth mother" (Chekhov's Marina, the surrogate mother to Sonia). Ms. Meyer finds half-a-dozen great, trembling comical layers of ascertainment in every conversation. But Babs is lucky, in the context of the playshe spends the least amount of her time confronting the person she'd much rather be, compared to the others, coming from one of the wrong ends of the story's two great romantic triangles.
Vanya is played by Christopher Harris. When you see him across town at the other-worldly Upstream Theatre, he's usually doing a great job wrestling with abstract symbols and metaphors on their stage. But here, it's strictly the hard realities of romantic yearning and man's sense of meaninglessness that drives him to comical extremes. It's not right or fair to compare him to a Tevye or a Zorba, but perhaps if Jean-Paul Sartre had written Fiddler on the Roof, leaving a younger man's quandaries between the words and lines for added meaning, you'd get the picture of what Mr. Harris achieves here, in all his bereft clownishness.
Terrific Katy Keating, likewise, strips herself of mad accents and crazy make-up this time, bringing all the bright colors and effects from the inside-out, in these eternal matters of the heart. As Sonia, she is surprisingly provoked to violence by her stepmother Ella (hilarious/smoldering Julie Layton) in a great breakthrough moment in their relationship; and Jeff Cummings is the handsome doctor Aster, though his talk with Ella about the environment is very up to date, focusing on climate change rather than deforestation. There's wonderful ironic humor all the way through, often springing from heartache or broken-hearted clowning, in true Russian fashion. Greg Johnston is the evil frosting on the cake as the anguished absentee father of Sonia, delightfully lamenting his descent into his final role, as an unwilling Kenny Rogers impersonator. But, as Life Sucks' Professor, he's also armed with entirely new, condescending means of robbing them all, that lead us to the play's final confrontation.
Michelle Hand is Pickles, the whimsical tenant ("Waffles" in the original script). If you know her past work, you will be watching very closely as she bounces through this role. Many of Ms. Hand's silly, apologetic moments of self-abnegation come with a tragic little grace note, as if to say "have I abased myself enough for you now?" Self-humiliation is Pickles' ticket to ride, despite her many virtues. But at another point, early on, she and Mr. Harris are rolling around on the stage floor, almost as if they were two cats chasing red laser dots. The joke is, each actor seems to be armed with an invisible laser flashlight of his or her own, teasing the other to greater and greater heights. It's a crazy thing that can happen when you put some of the best actors together with the best director in town.
Though playwright Aaron Posner has skewed the whole thing away from mysterious existentialism, and toward a wheels-within-wheels love story, this literary and social translation of Uncle Vanya still functions on an admirable level of storytelling, albeit with fewer ponderous moments. And the story is nicely turned on end four or five times, as the actors direct address the audience with questions about love, or things they love, or hate.
In the end, Life Sucks is more distinctly American because 1) they talk through their feelings, rather than just dismissing them outright, and good communication is quite simply anathema to existentialism; 2) there's lots of frank talk about sex; and 3) there is that one startling moment of violence between the two younger womenplus the usual gunplay near the end, which maybe could have gone on much longer, if you really want to be horrifically American about it. But Life Sucks really is a comedy, so scratch that.
And (this would be #4) even if we don't have the power to make others love us, there is redemption simply in the power to give love to others. In this strangely enchanted country home, the love you take really is equal to the love you make.
Life Sucks, through June 10, 2018, at the Jewish Community Association, #2 Millstone Drive, just west of Lindbergh on Scheutz, St. Louis MO. For more information visit www.newjewishtheatre.org.
* Denotes Member, Actors Equity Association
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