Diaghilev Theatre Company

at the Preston Bradley Community Center

It’s the notorious winter of 1942 in Leningrad. Lika, a 15-year-old temporary war orphan, is hiding out in an abandoned apartment. Her mother is a doctor working at the front, and her nanny was killed when a bomb destroyed their home. In walks a stranger, 17-year-old Marat. He too is a war orphan–he’s lost his family in air raids–and with nowhere else to go he’s come home, only to find that this girl has burned every last trace of his childhood in an effort to keep warm.

Out of such circumstances grows love, in Soviet playwright Aleksei Arbuzov’s The Promise. Love eternal, love true. The kind of love we all want to believe in.

But even true love can get complicated along the way, in this case by Leonidik, a frostbitten, fever-struck boy who stumbles in at the climax of Lika and Marat’s first kiss. He needs attending to immediately. Lika and Marat take him in and feed him, and so begins a lasting friendship–and a passionate love triangle.

The three innocently spend the winter of 1942 together. They share their dreams as young people are apt to do: Lika dreams of becoming a medical researcher; Marat, of building bridges; and Leonidik, of writing poetry. They seem more caught up in each other than in the food shortages, bombings, and loss of their families. Marat and Lika worry about Leonidik’s health, Marat convinces Lika to begin working at the clinic, Lika worries about Marat’s penchant for lying, and Marat grows jealous of Lika’s easy and intimate conversations with Leonidik. When all this grows too intense, Marat leaves to join the army. Shortly after, dutiful Leonidik suits up as well.

The Promise, written in 1965, rejoices in the triumphant power of love. It’s an uplifting, feel-good play, with a strong sense of moral integrity. Such romantic plays grew popular in the Soviet Union in the mid-50s, with the loosening of restrictions after Stalin’s death and the disintegration of more political socialist-realist drama. While these plays didn’t question the party line, they were daring in the sense that they explored such previously taboo subjects as extramarital sex, divorce, and separation.

Arbuzov is a good playwright, good in every sense of the word: he creates real and warm characters, the plot climaxes at just the right moment, his message is hopeful and can offend virtually no one. Which may explain why he was one of the Soviet Union’s most prolific writers in the 1950s and 1960s, even at times when other writers were expelled for their beliefs or exiled themselves in order to write as they pleased.

Arbuzov has an eye for detail that captures the steaminess of young love. The second act takes place in 1946, so passions have been simmering for four years when the three are reunited in the same Leningrad apartment. Lika and Leonidik are awkwardly joyful at seeing each other again, Lika misunderstands Marat’s inability to show affection, Marat and Leonidik compete in good-ol’-boy fashion for Lika’s heart. The events of post-World War II Russia scarcely affect them–these war orphans isolate themselves in their own little cocoon. “You and Marat are all I’ve got,” says Leonidik. “You never forget that winter of ’42.”

Ultimately, though, Lika is forced to choose a husband. Fast-forward 15 years. Lika and her husband lead a spiceless, dull life. He’s obviously the wrong choice, and everything seems hopeless until the entrance of the man Lika didn’t choose. They discuss how hopeful and passionate their lives were back in 1942 and 1946 and wonder where things went wrong. Meanwhile one of them secretly develops a scheme to bring that youthful spirit back.

The Promise is Diaghilev Theatre Company’s debut production. The name pays homage to Sergey Diaghilev, a Paris-based impresario who made history in the early 20th century with his bold, innovative ballets. “Astonish me” was his credo–interesting that this new troupe should choose Arbuzov’s play. The Promise does many good things, but it hardly astonishes.

Maybe they chose the play on the basis of its title. Diaghilev shows a lot of promise. Tina Sigel as Lika, J.D. Lloyd as Marat, and Todd Bruse as Leonidik are all strong: despite some early opening-night jitters that made Sigel and Lloyd rush their lines, all three gave tender, realistic performances.