Chekhov for the Modern Age: FTC's "Life Sucks" is an Irreverant Take on Despair
The internet is full of short, funny subtitles for classic books. Moby Dick is summed up with “Man versus whale. Whale wins.” Don Quixote is labeled “Guy fights windmills. Also, he’s crazy.” For The Grapes of Wrath there’s the pithy title, “Farming sucks. Road trip! Road trip also sucks.”
But don’t bother looking up an on-the-nose assessment of Anton Chekhov’s play Uncle Vanya. Award-winning playwright Aaron Posner has already beaten you to it. Life Sucks, his homage to the classic Russian work, riffs on its characters and themes while bringing them decidedly, and sometimes irreverently, onto the modern stage. Forward Theater’s excellent production of Life Sucks, running in the Playhouse at Overture Center through April 14, is a funny, contemplative, tragic, ridiculous and insightful take on the sad-sack antihero Uncle Vanya (William Bolz) and his loosely related family group, most of whom live on the edge of despair.
As the actors tell the audience directly in the first scene, this is a play about love, longing, loss, not getting what you want, and grappling with how screwed up the world is. They also warn that if you aren’t interested in the intellectual and emotional pathos that is to follow, then you “may have chosen your night’s entertainment badly.” That’s fair. But seriously, don’t leave your seats. These characters, with their desires, flaws, blind spots and small comforts, are people you should meet.
Brian Mani’s tweed-clad Professor is the mostly absent owner of this rural estate, that could easily be a vacation property in Door County. He and his third wife, the much younger and stunningly attractive Ella (a chicly dressed Rána Roman) have dropped by to check up on the house and the collection of misfits who live there, including his plain, very kind daughter Sonia (Elyse Edelman), the aggressively quirky, broken-hearted lesbian nicknamed Pickles (a pig-tailed, ukulele-strumming Marcella Kearns), and the easy-going ceramic artist Babs (Sarah Day), a family friend who moved in after the Professor’s first wife died of cancer, when Sonia was very young. Dr. Aster (an affable Reese Madigan) also visits frequently. A middle aged neighbor and childhood friend of Vanya’s, he works too much, drinks too much, and works out too much. He, like the others, is often lonely and alone.
Over the course of four acts, these characters complain to, and bicker with one another, taking breaks only to refill their cocktail glasses, sing snippets of bouncy Beatles songs, and long for things to be different. Each scene’s title is on a calendar that hangs on one of the incomplete walls of the home and as each month is flipped, the actors and the audience jointly know what we’re in for next.
On the multi-level stage, where there is usually a character or two listening in the shadows, the all-star cast revels in their grumpiness. Boltz’s Vanya takes jabs at the Professor with the bitter mumblings of a sore-loser. He needles the academic -- a professor of semiotics -- for his superior airs, his pompous vocabulary and his disdain for their provincial life. Mani’s professor makes a show of swatting at gnats whenever his host starts to whine.
In another part of the estate, the hapless doctor pursues Roman, the bored trophy wife, by discussing the planet’s impending doom, due to global warming and man’s carelessness with natural resources. His speech bores her to tears, while sending Edelman’s Sonia into hilarious fits, since she has made an avocation of pining for him, completely unacknowledged. Her last desperate attempt to get his attention is operatic, as is her chagrin when he walks off, completely unmoved. Edelman’s expressive face cringes and remakes itself like Silly Putty as she describes the pain of constant rejection and shares the sexual fantasy she fixates on with the audience.
As much as the one-on-one confessions and small group sniping is entertaining, the actors really shine in monologues, many of them in conversation with the audience. Roman’s indignation is fantastic as she rails about how often her lovely physical features interfere with her ability to have a normal friendship -- or even a conversation -- with other people. Mani’s diatribe on the indignities of getting older, slower, and heavier is also sublime. And Kearns’s recitation on love -- real, faithful, and unwavering -- even after her heart is broken, is poignant and true.
Meanwhile Sarah Day’s Babs reclines casually in an Adirondack chair, sipping vodka, and withholding judgement as much as she can. The only one with real agency or peace of mind, Day’s monologue about gratitude is a beautiful meditation on mindfulness.
Playwright Aaron Posner has described Anton Chekhov’s masterworks -- The Cherry Orchard, Three Sisters, Uncle Vanya and The Seagull -- as “iceberg plays.” Like an iceberg, what’s visible about the characters through their dull, everyday chatter masks the much larger issues that weigh each of them down. The objectives and conflict that drive the story dwell far, far below the waterline, almost entirely in subtext. One of the reasons Life Sucks is so refreshing is that Posner brings all that subtext front and center to be dealt with head-on, like no Chekhovian character (or most of the rest of us) ever could. Another, is his playful approach to language and theatrical conventions. He loves breaking the fourth wall -- the imaginary barrier between the actors and the audience -- and frames several illuminating scenes as games and lists rather than conventional dialogues.
Jennifer Uphoff Gray’s direction is understated -- characters wander in and out of scenes with the same plodding pace that keeps each in his or her own rut. Fortunately Mike Lawler’s creative set gives them plenty of places to sit and talk. Or moan. Or cry. As stipulated in one of Sonia’s speeches in act one, the estate is “an odd, impressionistic, deconstructed version of a house” that seems to be dissolving from the bottom up. Window frames are incomplete, shingles are missing and the roof no longer meets at the peak.
But a relentless blue sky, filling the entire back wall, shines through the missing building blocks. And beside the house there is a cherry tree, bursting with the spectacular pink blooms of late spring -- that none of the self-absorbed, self-pitying, self-sabotaging characters can see.