Chekhov & Maria
nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
July 13, 2006
Chekhov & Maria, Jovanka Bach's biographical play about the famous Russian playwright and his sister, is respectfully done on all fronts. The acting is good, the story is told well, and the production is handsome. The play makes some interesting points about the nature of close-knit sibling relationships and the single-minded drive of creative artists, and gives the audience a fascinating look at one of history's greatest playwrights.
The play takes place in the early 1900s, in Chekhov's home in Yalta, Crimea. He has just returned from visiting Moscow after putting the finishing touches on his next play, Three Sisters. Waiting for him is his dutiful sister, Maria, who is an "old maid" by her own admission. She has spent most of her adult life taking care of her sick brother, sacrificing her own happiness in the process. When she learns that Chekhov actually left Moscow six weeks earlier, and has secretly been somewhere else since then, Maria questions his devotion to her, setting in motion a chain of events that may threaten (and decide the fate of) their relationship.
One of the siblings' sticking points is Chekhov's romance with actress Olga Knipper, the Moscow Art Theatre's leading lady. Chekhov admires her artistry and devotion to the theatre; Maria thinks she's nothing more than an opportunistic social climber. Chekhov's sister may also be more than a little jealous of all the attention he showers on Olga, thinking it should be reserved for her instead. After all, Maria is the one who dotes on Chekhov hand and foot while Olga remains in Moscow furthering her career.
Chekhov sees it differently, though. With his delicate health, he knows full well that he wouldn't get through each day without Maria's help, for which he is immensely grateful. Unfortunately, that doesn't stop him from often treating her like little more than the hired help. Chekhov has settled into a comfortable routine, the lynchpin of which is his expectancy that Maria will be around for his convenience. And, what about Olga? Chekhov is madly in love with her, and understands that she must remain in Moscow for her career. Besides, domesticity is not for her, he admits.
So, what came first: Chekhov's everyday reliance on his sister, or Maria's martyr-like sacrifices for the sake of her brother's well-being? This is the play's main facet, and playwright Bach examines it closely without offering a cut-and-dried answer. Plenty of evidence is presented for both sides, giving the audience more than enough information to decide for themselves.
Chekhov & Maria also abounds with enough subplots for several other plays. There's the torch that Maria still carries for a long-ago suitor who wanted to marry her; Chekhov's efforts to clear Maxim Gorky's reputation after his expulsion from the Imperial Academy of Russian Artists by order of Tsar Nicholas II; and Chekhov's never-ending complaints about Stanislavski's handling of his plays (Bach gets a well-earned laugh from the audience when she has Chekhov declare that Stanislavski is trying to turn his comedy The Cherry Orchard into "a bucolic melodrama!"). The famed dramatist insists that all his plays are comedies, not tragedies—as is life itself. "We're ridiculous, pathetic, but not tragic!" he exclaims during Act II. Bach wisely keeps her protagonist's adage front and center all throughout Chekhov & Maria, emphasizing the former two qualities in both characters while steering them away from the third.
Director John Stark gives Chekhov & Maria an authentic feel, pacing it at what one can only imagine might have been the speed of the era its set in. Without cell phones, the internet, computers, or other technological distractions, the only things the characters can do are write and talk to each other. The unhurried pace helps establish the world of the play, and draw the audience into it. There are only a couple of instances, most notably in the more epistolary segments of Act II, where I wish Stark had sped things up, for the sake of building more dramatic tension, just a tad more. On the whole, though, his staging works well.
Chekhov & Maria's main assets are the performances by its lead actors. As Maria, Gillian Brashear successfully maneuvers several moments in the script that veer dangerously close to melodrama unscathed. Ron Bottitta gives a completely natural, unaffected performance as Chekhov, bringing this somewhat nebulous figure vividly to life. Together, they give the production a reliably sturdy center.