As a city, Atlanta is inordinately blessed with playwrights.
Local resident Margaret Edson and native Atlantan Alfred Uhry won Pulitzer Prizes for Wit and Driving Miss Daisy, respectively, while Whole World Theatre's The Decalogues could be a Who's Who of local writers on the rise.
But no Atlanta-area playwright observes local concerns more acutely than Anton Chekhov. Despite having died in 1904, the Russian writer could somehow see across an ocean and a century to view this city's character with startling clarity.
Glance at a Chekhov work like The Cherry Orchard, playing at Georgia Shakespeare through Aug. 5, and the playwright might first seem downright parochial. Chekhov wrote almost exclusively about a seemingly narrow demographic: rural Russia's fading aristocracy near the turn of the 20th century. But watch how his tragi-comic dramas play out, and you can't miss the parallels with Dixie's transition from Old South to New.
Can you have a story any more innately Atlantan than real estate development? In The Cherry Orchard, a once-wealthy family faces the foreclosure of its sprawling estate while Lopakhin (a hearty yet sensitive Bruce Evers), a nouveau riche businessman, proposes tearing down their beloved orchard to make room for middle-class summer houses. Compare the plot against our local literature, and it's like A Man in Full's alpha-male developer Charlie Croker trying to buy up Gone With the Wind's Tara plantation.
The writer provides a rich perspective on human nature. Lopakhin shows great respect for the past even as he looks to the future, sharply contrasting with Atlanta's heedless eagerness to raze anything old. Lopakhin hopes to help elegant, generous-to-a-fault matriarch Lyubov (Carolyn Cook), who lives in the past even as it's being sold out from under her. Cook also plays Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire in Georgia Shakespeare's summer repertory, and by coincidence or design, she draws a direct line between Tennessee Williams' South and Chekhov's Russia with her performances of two penniless, aging belles clinging to their illusions.
Chekhov's characters span the classes, from masters to servants, and Cherry Orchard explicitly mentions the history of the serfs, Russia's caste of indentured servants freed a generation before the play's action. When Brad Sherrill's idealistic student Trofimov talks about how the serfs' former owners still have blood on their hands, he could be speaking directly to the eras of Reconstruction or Jim Crow. Meanwhile, Chris Kayser's elderly, doddering butler remains part of the family with no hard feelings. It's like the Estate Too Busy To Hate.
All great writers address universal ideas, but where Shakespeare presents archetypal conflicts and larger-than-life personalities, Chekhov shows you people who could be your friends and family. His characters run the gamut from love-struck teens to stoic old folks, from starry-eyed intellectuals to pragmatic men of business. Since I grew up in Atlanta, perhaps I'm predisposed to see this city in Chekhov's plays, while somebody from, say, Calgary would see them as innately Canadian.
Chekhov's trademark bittersweetness perfectly suits modern movies and television: You could say he invented the "dramedy" genre. Chekhov's pace can be languid, and Cherry Orchard director Sabin Epstein makes the play a little too drowsy, although he also crafts some moments of breathtaking delicacy. Chekhov's works could easily strike a chord with local audiences who aren't frightened off by names ending in -ya or -ov. And these needn't be huge productions: The now-defunct Soul-stice Repertory (one of whose leaders, Hudson Adams, provides some of Cherry Orchard's comic relief) used to put up lovely, small-scale Chekhov productions every year.
I'm not alone in noticing the parallels. The Alliance Theatre has commissioned actress/playwright Regina Taylor to pen a reimagined adaptation of The Cherry Orchard through the prism of Atlanta's rising African-American business class in the 1950s and 1960s. (Has the Alliance has been eavesdropping on Off Script Headquarters?)
With The Magnolia Project scheduled for sometime after the Alliance's 2005-06 season, perhaps Georgia Shakespeare's Cherry Orchard and PushPush Theater's upcoming take on The Seagull (Sept. 2-Oct. 1) could initiate a conversation about Chekhov that will engage with Taylor's play further down the road. Given how the playwright's concerns so eerily echo our own, Atlanta should adopt Anton Chekhov as a native son.
The Academy Theatre has seen some more traffic since establishing its new theatrical home in Avondale Estates. Neighborhood theater company Stamford Studio will use the Academy's space to stage The Lion in Winter (one of my favorite scripts) from Aug. 19-28. Then Offoffpeachtree Theatre relocates from its church basement home on Clairmont Road to even further off Peachtree and becomes a resident company at the Academy's playhouse, beginning with Ben Elton's Hollywood satire Popcorn Sept. 29-Oct. 21.
Jack in the Black Box Theatre uses mime, dance, spoken word and world music to explore the big sleep in Jean-Claude van Itallie's avant-garde play The Tibetan Book of the Dead. Aug. 3-27. Actor's Express. $12-$25. 404-432-9847. www.jackintheblackbox.org.
After this week, Off Script will become an occasional feature in CL's Arts pages. Beginning Aug. 4, we'll launch three new arts features.
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