Sister Act

If Anton Chekhov were alive today, he would no doubt take great joy in the invention of e-mail. He and his favorite actress (and lover), Olga Knipper, could have then communicated from afar with the protection of user names and passwords. Unfortunately, in the early 1900's Chekhov had no choice but to send his secret letters in envelopes easily pried open by his nosy, overbearing sister, Maria. Playwright Jovanka Bach examines the strong yet unusual bond between these two siblings in her finely tuned, bittersweet family drama, Chekhov and Maria, playing at the Barrow Group Theater. At the same time, there is a story behind the story that is equally important. Before the production begins, director John Stark provides a personal introduction, explaining to the audience that his wife, the play's author, passed away in January after a long battle with cancer. He dedicates this production to her memory.

Stark's personal understanding of the story and devotion to its characters shows in his loving direction of his late wife's play. There is a strong emotional core to Chekhov and Maria, especially considering the heartbreaking similarities between Chekhov and Bach, two playwrights who struggled to complete their work while plagued by a terminal disease.

The play opens with Chekhov (Ron Bottitta) returning to his Yalta country home after a mysteriously long vacation. Maria (Gillian Brashear) greets him like an eager puppy, bombarding him with questions, praise, interrogations, tea, cake, dinner, and mail all at once. Her keen interest in the details of his life feels strangely obsessive for a sibling, but Chekhov seems unperturbed, indulging his sister with silly stories and idle chitchat. The only hint of conflict between them concerns his love for Olga, a Moscow actress starring in a production of The Three Sisters. The brother and sister are clearly very dependent on each another yet seem too close for siblings, with Maria acting like a wife and Chekhov behaving like her domineering husband.

Bottitta takes us inside Chekhov's head, familiarizing us with the mind of one of the world's most celebrated writers, a playwright who saw humor in misfortune and farce in tragedy. This Chekhov has always rejected public notions of himself as a gloomy old man constantly writing about death and hopelessness. Remembering his impoverished childhood, growing up poor in a musty basement with several siblings and a cruel father, he speaks as though he knows tragedy, and it is not the stuff his plays are made of.

His naturalistic interaction with Maria is fascinating to watch but at times hard to bear because of her suffocating presence in his life. Brashear gives a convincing, emotionally involved performance as Maria, finding the perfect balance between a lonely old maid pining for the road not traveled and a fiery, controlling sister determined to protect her brother from himself.

She has the difficult task of caring for Chekhov as a person while catering to his demanding needs as a writer. When The Three Sisters closes, another play must open, and Chekhov is driven to stay up all night composing the new piece by candlelight at the cost of his health. Concerned about his hacking cough, Maria hides the candles so he cannot work at night, effectively halting his work but improving his well-being. Her actions, well intentioned as they might be, are always in question because she makes them without considering her brother's wishes.

Maria manipulates circumstances to keep Chekhov confined to his Yalta home while critics and audience members toast his plays in Moscow. It drives him mad to know that the cast and crew are having fun at parties and discussing the greatness of his work while he sits at home reading about it in papers. He wants badly to be at these parties with his friends, admirers, and Olga.

Though the story takes its time to set up, it eventually builds to a rich and rewarding payoff when Maria goes too far and Chekhov says too much to her, hitting a raw nerve. With their final, climactic fight, many questions are answered regarding a lifetime of difficult circumstances that have brought them so close together. Surprisingly, given the odd nature of their relationship, the answers are convincing.

It is always a great feeling to leave a theater thinking of the play you have just seen and wondering which of its two leads gave a more compelling performance. With its intimate theater setting and subtle, believable acting, Chekhov and Maria will also leave you feeling as if you had just spent an evening sitting in the great playwright's living room.

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