You have to admire Pierre van der Spuy. Imagine leaving a successful medical career to pursue theater, a courageous act in itself, only to become playwright, director, and star of one of your very first projects. As anyone in theater can attest, to do any one of those three things well is a challenge; to do them simultaneously is nearly impossible. Albeit with dogged effort, van der Spuy falls far short of success with Anton, his four-act investigation of the last four years of Anton Chekhov's life. While densely researched and thoughtfully presented, the script—intended to represent a Chekhovian authorial style—lacks a dramatic arc, and the action flits around, but never fully addresses, van der Spuy's overarching intention.
His purpose, noted in Epilogue II, is to raise awareness and concern for how children are treated in their first five years of life. Referring to a tree's development (as mentioned in the play), he asks, "What are we as a society doing to support those parents with undetected defective inner growth rings to prevent them from passing on their loneliness, their melancholy, their self-destructive behavior, and their fear of intimacy from generation to generation?"
But while the Chekhov represented in Anton is melancholic, regretful, and often emotionally impenetrable, the four episodes offer little evidence to link his emotional state directly to the first five years of his life. His tense relationships with his family do fray and tear apart as his health deteriorates. But just as his consumptive cough never really worsens (even near the end, it's difficult to believe he is close to death), the pace of this lugubrious, bland production, instead of ebbing and flowing, plods steadily and flatly along, offering few epiphanies or transformations.
Chekhov spent most of his last years in Moscow and at his home in Yalta, where the play is set. There he keeps company with his widowed mother, Eugenia (Loyita Chapel); his sister, Masha (Shelley Phillips); and the actress Olga Knipper (Ana Kearin Genske), who starred in many of his plays and later becomes his wife. He certainly has many reasons to be gloomy: his mother is fiercely overprotective and needy, Masha longs for independence but continues to lean on him, Olga openly has affairs and struggles with pregnancy, and Chekhov himself still struggles with his brother Kolia's death from consumption, which occurred when Chekhov was 29.
As a playwright, Chekhov valued the use of subtext and metaphor, and wrote scripts that prioritized character over plot. While van der Spuy's script does, at times, embrace these conventions, his characters lack the depth and poignancy to carry the production forward. Olga, in particular, is so static that Genske herself seems bored by her own performance at times.
Fortunately, Chapel and Phillips bring welcome light to the production. As Chekhov's unlikable mother, Chapel purses her lips with severity, but also allows us to see her irrevocable love for her son. She is particularly remarkable in a beautiful moment when she tells Anton what she remembers about Kolia.
Phillips is luminous as Masha, expertly locating the complicated subtext in what could be a forgettable role. When Olga chides her, "Your lips are smiling, but not your eyes," she's telling the truth—Phillips often wears her smile as a deceptive mask, and reveals subtle layers of character throughout the production.
Rounding out the cast are Kent Langloss, who does a fine job as the omnipresent Dr. Altshuller; Lee Kaplan, who overplays the annoying qualities of visiting author Bunin; Jamison Vaughn, who is too young but still endearing as the elderly servant Mariushka; and Jim Heaphy, who plays the other fictionalized servant, Sergei.
The domestic tension is beguilingly captured by Sarah Phykitt's set, in which ornate rugs and furniture are juxtaposed with family photos to create a believable familial atmosphere. Katie Stults produced a very pleasant collection of costumes, and Jessica Lynn Hinkle's lighting design convincingly evokes the changing seasons. Unfortunately, the direction works to undermine these excellent technical elements—characters enter and exit from inconsistent locations, and in the absence of a coat rack, one character simply throws his coat on the floor.
Anton laments, "Life should be beautiful if you live in a house like this," but looks can be deceiving, and Chekhov's life, as presented here, is far from bucolic. Chekhov longed for theater that was "just as complex and yet as simple" as life itself; people may be simply having a meal, "but at the same time their happiness is being created, or their lives are smashed up."
Unfortunately, we aren't privy to enough creation or destruction to justify this journey, and, like Joe Brooks, who produced, directed, and wrote the now-defunct Broadway musical In My Life earlier this season, van der Spuy falls victim to the lack of perspective that results from being too immersed in one's own project. Still, you can't blame him for trying; as he's probably already discovered, producing theater is often about, if nothing else, dreaming the impossible dream.