P.O.C. Repertory

In 1932, Joseph Stalin was firmly in power in the Soviet Union and Maksim Gorky–who had both befriended and battled Lenin, substantially financing but also chastising the Party–was in the twilight of both his writing career and his life. If Gorky hadn’t exactly sold out to Stalin, he had certainly accommodated the dictator to the extent of writing some of his propaganda.

Still, you get the sense that the 64-year-old Gorky, however comfortable under Stalin, yearned for something else, perhaps for something the October Revolution had left unfulfilled. Yegor Bulichov & Others, written 15 years after the upheaval of 1917, is the work of a man who, if not at his creative end, certainly feels at an end of some sort. Maybe it’s just the end of an era–the era of revolutionary expectation. So Yegor Bulichov & Others–like many of Gorky’s postrevolutionary writings–is a work of nostalgia. Indeed, its final curtain is accompanied by a rousing version of “The Internationale.”

The play concerns itself with Yegor Bulichov, a provincial merchant dying of cancer, and his household, including an illegitimate daughter and a domestic named Glaphira with whom he is having an affair. As news spreads of Yegor’s illness among his relatives and associates, all but the daughter and the maid plot in some way to get his money, his house, and his business. In the meantime, news of civil unrest is also spreading, matching Yegor’s own spiritual restlessness. Still, he is no revolutionary. While he hints at supporting the rebels, ultimately he makes no commitment.

Although not as dogmatic as Gorky’s earlier works, Yegor Bulichov & Others still draws its political sketches rather broadly. The privileged family members are portrayed as selfish and uncaring, while Glaphira, the outsider daughter, and the daughter’s rebel lover–the only ones with any rightful claims to lumpen proletariat–are wholly good, dedicated to both Yegor and the coming revolution.

Unlike the traditional downtrodden Gorky hero, Yegor is a middle-class man. But Gorky has him question the status quo enough that, at least from a Marxist perspective, there is hope of redemption. The play was written well after Gorky’s mystic period, so Yegor’s railings against religion are bitter and sharp. Some scenes, such as the visit from Gabriel the trumpeter, have a haunting pathos about them.

But ultimately Yegor is not a sympathetic character. He is arrogant, petulant, and deceptive. He decries his own death, but he couldn’t care less about anyone else’s. His half- hearted embrace of the rebels is transparently self-serving–not a political or emotional conversion at all but rather a spiteful turn on his family. The sorry treatment of his wife–often intended as comic relief by the playwright–is anachronistic at best, ridiculous at worst.

The play provokes an ambivalent response from the audience, in part because Yegor’s own take on the revolution is so ambivalent. In the end, Yegor doesn’t come down on either side, and no one else moves significantly from his or her original position.

But the ambivalence is also there in P.O.C. Repertory’s production, which treats the script as a tame historical drama and Gorky as nearly folkloric. P.O.C. somehow misses the fact that Gorky, however critical of the revolution, was never ambivalent: he was always committed.

Save for “The Internationale,” director Kate Harris stays away from all the piece’s possible implications. In fact, her notes on the play refer to the script’s lyricism and flatly state that she has little more to add–strange given current world events, if nothing else. By embracing rather than exploring Yegor’s ambivalence, she renders the whole thing flat. It’s able enough, but why should we care?

The play is performed in a sun room of sorts in the United Church of Rogers Park; the set is a surprisingly naturally lit living room that gives the events a truly intimate feel. The set design and period costuming are excellent. Doug McDade is a convincing Yegor, but the better performances belong to minor players: John Norris, in three different roles; Basil C. Doyle, in two; and Kelly Nespor, in the meaty part of Varvara, Yegor’s legitimate offspring.