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Do not let the obviously hip, conventionally vulgar title of Aaron Posner’s play dissuade you from seeing “Life Sucks,” now receiving its Midwest premiere in a glorious Lookingglass Theatre production impeccably directed by Andrew White, who has gathered a cast of seven exceptional actors.
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As it turns out, Posner’s latest contemporary riff on the work of Anton Chekhov, the groundbreaking early 20th century Russian dramatist, is altogether wise, profoundly humane, hilarious, quirky, endearing and, in countless clever ways, brilliantly faithful to its source: “Uncle Vanya.” In addition, as was the case in “Stupid F—ing Bird” — his previous Chekhovian “update,” inspired by “The Seagull” — Posner has managed to find his own voice in the process, bringing a playful, far from cynical, fourth-wall-piercing originality to the story of a group of yearning, frustrated, heartbroken, questioning and in many ways privileged souls who are, in their varied and deeply flawed ways, trying to cope with all the essential conundrums of existence.
Instead of a rural Russian estate, Posner gives us a rustic summer home that might be on a lake somewhere in northern Wisconsin or Minnesota. (And, as always, designer Brian Sidney Bembridge has created a total environment, whose autumnal, leaf-strewn floor, white birch trees, cozy cottage interior and simple dock complete with rowboat is enough to trigger dreams of a summer idyll. Mieka van der Ploeg’s ingenious costumes do the rest.)
The house is ostensibly owned by the Professor (Jim Ortlieb), a pompous, narcissistic academic specializing in semiotics who has lived in the city for years while his property was being cared for by the daughter from the first of his three marriages, the warm-spirited Sonia (Danielle Zuckerman), and her knowing nerdy uncle, Vanya (the wonderful Eddie Jemison, in a rare but welcome return to Chicago after establishing a career in Hollywood). They share the house with two eccentric women: Babs (Barbara E. Robertson), a ceramics artist in middle age who travels widely and has a winning bohemian spirit, and Pickles (an ideally eccentric Penelope Walker), a lesbian still pining for her lover of two decades earlier, and whose dreams of being a great artist have been reduced to knitting hand puppets. (The Pickles character “replaces” the old boarder named Waffles in the Chekhov original.)
Sonia’s much admired neighbor is Dr. Aster (Philip R. Smith), a handsome bachelor and do-gooder who confesses he works too hard, exercises too obsessively, drinks too much and opines over man’s seemingly unstoppable destruction of planet Earth. Aster is one sexual catalyst in the play, who is quite aware that he is no prize. The other is the Aphrodite-like Ella (Chaon Cross), the professor’s younger, lushly beautiful (and inexplicably faithful) wife who sends almost everyone else in the play into a tailspin of desire and resentment.
At one point, Vanya (played to perfection by Jemison as the intensely self-aware, depressed, deeply intelligent man who hopelessly longs for Ella, and for some form of life-enhancing recognition, and who makes the most of his Yiddish-inflected intonations) talks about his wish to be in the “pre-conscious” world of creatures who had none of the constraints that came with an awareness of morality and mortality, but simply lived fully in the moment — something he is wholly unable to do. At another point the character lists the things they love most in life, an exercise with all the charm of John Coltrane’s version of “My Favorite Things” as they name everything from “cheap ice cream cones, old barns, a string quartet and ice cubes in a glass, to Nina Simone, the stupid jokes kids love,” and more.
At another point, Ella (and Cross is absolutely fantastic here) engages in a full-blown rant, asking the audience why men (and women) are invariably in such hot pursuit of her. It is not the first of the show’s “interventions” with the audience, which are carried off with a great spirit of (often embarrassing) truth-telling and fun. Cross and Zuckerman (who is charming, and taps the less saintly but real qualities of her Chekhovian counterpart) also engage in a perfectly orchestrated truth-telling session about female beauty.
Ortlieb very honestly offers his own defense, confessing he can feel how he is aging with every passing day. (He can not, however, defend semiotics, that post-modern elitist affectation that Posner gleefully — and deservedly — eviscerates, winning applause from the audience in the process.)
It is for Robertson — whose character, Babs, is the matriarch-without-children, and a great life force — to embrace the philosophy that counters the play’s title, and she does so with the magic that has long marked her career. Listen to her tell the story of her exuberant immigrant grandfather, the Ukrainian Jew who was “a life eater,” and suddenly existence will not “suck” at all in this human tragicomedy reborn for our moment.
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