Go Away–Go Away

European Repertory Company

at National Pastime Theater

Governmental and economic systems may come and go, but the Russians remain the Russians. And to be Russian means to have a clear vision of a better world, a better life, coupled with the understanding–perhaps not as clear but far more enduring–that such a world and such a life are hopelessly out of reach. That at least is the inference to be drawn from Nikolay Kolyada’s play Go Away–Go Away, being given its U.S. premiere by the European Repertory Company. Though set in contemporary Russia, the piece cannot escape the influence of earlier eras–nor does it try to. Its agglomeration of miserable characters in a cavelike hovel suggests Gorky’s The Lower Depths, while its gallows wit in the midst of emotional paralysis pays homage to Chekhov.

It’s often too easy to label a Russian work Chekhovian, but Kolyada invites the comparison. One character describes the play’s situation as “Uncle Vanya meets The Three Sisters,” and the action hinges on the protagonist’s desire to go elsewhere–not Moscow in this case but the Caucasus. It won’t spoil the end to report that ultimately she stays put, for here as in Chekhov the subject is not the outcome but the struggle. Most important, Kolyada’s characters face–or try to avoid–the issues that consume Chekhov: middle-aged people discovering that they’re headed in the wrong direction, and young people inevitably making the bad decisions that turn into midlife regrets.

These themes make for an absorbing evening even though Kolyada doesn’t quite have the skill to weave them into a coherent plot. His ear for dialogue and monologue is outstanding, but like August Wilson he sometimes lets the music of character revelation supersede the demands of character interaction. Fortunately this production’s quartet of excellent leads makes even the incidental “music” worth listening to.

As the play opens, Ludmilla is trying frantically to entertain a blind date over lunch in the apartment–actually a single room–she shares with her daughter Angelica, her drunken mother, and her senile grandmother. The mysterious Valentin has shown up unexpectedly in response to Ludmilla’s personal ad, bragging of his seven-room house complete with grapevine in the warm, sunny Caucasus. To secure that house–and her escape–Ludmilla is willing to overlook Valentin’s drawbacks: the mysterious nature of his job (“I work for the Department of Development”), a train of unsatisfactory previous wives, even the unsavory competition he creates between her and other women who’ve placed personal ads.

With Ludmilla’s opening monologue, Lusia Strus masterfully establishes the evening’s tone–rueful humor barely masking desperation–and it’s her extraordinary performance throughout that keeps the play and her fellow players on track. Passing from sobriety to drunkenness and back again, she is by turns funny-giddy, funny-caustic, wrathful, buoyant, suspicious, and naive, and so richly invested in the role that she can pull off lines like “I work at a bus station, but my bus is long gone”–the very sort of self-conscious reflection that makes Chekhov vulnerable to bad production. She also delivers her comic lines (“My daughter, I named her after Angela Davis, plague take it”) with the most perfect unconsciousness, when the slightest wink would have enabled the audience to dismiss Ludmilla instead of identifying with her. Likewise, if Strus were even faintly whiny, Ludmilla’s recurrent line–“Some people are lucky, some people are happy”–would be infuriating. Instead it’s heartbreaking, because she’s less envious or bitter than astonished at others’ experience.

Strus gets terrific support from Kirk Anderson as Valentin, a man coming to realize that his life is less before him than behind him. Kolyada’s strong, subtle writing enables the actor to reveal the character gradually: by the time braggadocio has given way to neediness (Valentin panics if he spends even a moment alone) and neediness has turned predatory, audience and characters alike have come to wonder if there’s anyone there at all. Anderson handles Valentin’s bout of unconcealed self-loathing and his final stolid acceptance with a grace suggesting he’ll make a wonderful Vanya someday.

The play loses its focus at the start of act two, when Kolyada tries to move beyond Ludmilla and Valentin to Angelica and her soldier boyfriend, Yevgeny. Julie Paparella is both touching and terrifying as the mercurial daughter, so enraged by the limitations of her life that she keeps slapping Ludmilla, yet so fearful her mother will abandon her that she pretends she’s only trying to kill mosquitos. Tim Donovan brings a persuasive mixture of stupidity, cupidity, and romance to the peasant manque Yevgeny. But halfway through the script is too late for the audience to shift its sympathies: the play belongs to Ludmilla and Valentin, and Angelica seems a distraction no matter how poetic her reflections.

Kolyada doesn’t yet have Chekhov’s ability to make every strand of tangled relationships equally important and to compel the audience to see every situation from every side. And in his hands the mother and grandmother fare even worse than the young lovers: though each has a few lines, they’re more props than people. Similarly, the fact that Ludmilla’s tenants are moving to America is a frank device to contrast escape with entrapment.

Kolyada also has a hard time wrapping things up. After Ludmilla makes a stirring speech in which she accepts her losses, Valentin makes one, and then Ludmilla makes another. No matter how capable the actors, the playwright should pull them off the stage before the audience wants to push them.

Directors Yasen Peyankov and Luda Lopatina (both of whom also translated the play, with Peter Christensen) trace a sure arc through the action, managing the playwright’s superfluities without succumbing to them, and their touch with actors is extraordinary. Byron Wallace’s set is a marvel of claustrophobia.

Just one question persists. Since Chekhov’s concerns are so current that a young playwright like Kolyada is copying the master’s characters, plots, and themes, why don’t companies produce Chekhov in modern dress more often? Surely if Chicago Shakespeare Theater can give As You Like It new life by setting the play in imperial Russia, someone can take the imperial Russian Cherry Orchard and put it on land in need of Farm Aid in the Pacific Northwest. Until then, we can be grateful for well-wrought homages like Kolyada’s.