Maxim Gorky was Russia’s most famous writer for most of the first third of the 20th century, the master of socialist realism and a champion of the Revolution, until he was murdered by Stalin in the 1930s. As a playwright he’s best known for The Lower Depths (1902), a depressing naturalistic play about a group of down-and-outs drinking, bitching, and philosophizing in a Moscow basement, the inspiration for O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh. Less well known, and not revived in English until 1989, was his Summerfolk, first produced in 1904, the same year as The Cherry Orchard, the master work of his much greater theatrical contemporary, Anton Chekhov.
Summerfolk is much like The Cherry Orchard but with even a larger cast. At the end of The Cherry Orchard the aristocratic Renavskaya estate is going to be turned into summer cottages for the bourgeoisie. This is Gorky’s portrait of those decadent Russian bourgeois, wasting away their useless lives as summer comes to an end on the long eve of the Revolution.
It’s a fascinating play in many ways, more explicitly political than Chekhov’s work but without Chekhov’s genius, his quirkiness and charm, and the affection he has for his characters. In Jane Heyman’s student production it gets the usual excellent Studio 58 treatment, though it’s one frustrating act too long.
At a garden party hosted by Varya (Alicia Novak), we meet all the usual Chekhovian suspects: doctors and lawyers, writers and students, businessmen and servants, lovers and unhappy wives. Arguments break out, suicide is attempted, much alcohol is consumed, and nearly everyone laments their lives, not the least Varya, who is married to the brutish, boorish, corrupt businessman Sergei (Sebastian Kroon), and is further disillusioned when the romantic writer she thinks she loves, Shalimov (Luke Camillieri), turns out to be even a bigger loser.
A few of Varya’s lines: “I don’t like winter. I don’t like my life.” “We lead ugly lives, ugly and boring.” “The way we live now is despicable.” She’s echoed throughout the play by many of the others. “How am I going to live?” asks rich old Dvoetochie (Chris Cochrane). “I find it remarkable that we don’t all loathe each other,” remarks Dr. Dudakov (Ashley Liu). “People are so stupid,” despairs wisecracking young Vlass (Charlie Gallant), “I find a profound need to be even stupider. This banality, it’s poisoning me.”
At least Vlass has the good sense to fall in love with Maria Lvovna (the superb Jessica Hill), the sensible, straight-talking socialist nearly everyone else despises. The third act ends with a fine speech of hers to her daughter Sonya (Maria Jose Romo) that promises the possibility of a reasonable life for some of the characters, a perfect ending for the play. But “Gorky” doesn’t mean “bitter” for nothing. So he wrote an utterly redundant fourth act in which he brings every character back to reprise all their complaints and reveal again all their weaknesses. Okay, okay, already. We get why the Revolution had to happen.
Other fine performances include Trisha Cundy as Dudakov’s unhappy wife, Olga; Miriam Westland as Yulia, an unhappy wife who takes matters into her own hands, Jon Lachlan Stewart as the decadent “Butterfly” Zamislov, and Adrianne Dunsmore as the spinster Kaleria, who plays a mean piano and recites empty decadent poetry. And I’m sure I’ve left out a worthy few more.
Mara Gottler has designed dozens of great period costumes and Pam Johnson’s attractive garden set is interesting and functional.