‘Life Sucks,’ but Updating Chekhov Doesn’t
By Stephanie Harte
Photo Credit: Elyse Edelman as Sonia and Rána Roman as Ella in Forward Theater's production of "Life Sucks." Photo by Ross Zentner.
Life Sucks, penned by Madison-born playwright Aaron Posner, opens with a clever collection of characters telling the audience that if they aren’t interested in the themes of love, longing, and loss, they may have poorly selected their source of entertainment for the evening.
Loosely adapted from Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, Forward Theater Company’s production of Life Sucks follows a group of old friends, ex-lovers, estranged in-laws and lifelong enemies as they struggle to obtain a meaningful life.
“These characters know they are in a play,” explains Jennifer Uphoff Gray, Life Sucks director and Forward Theater artistic director. “There are moments when they are trying to get the audience on their side because they all have such competing desires. I really love the engaging tone it has.”
Gray explains that Life Sucks contains three qualities that are rarely combined in a play: a realistic portrayal of longing and disappointment, knee-slapping comedy and self-awareness.
“My cast and I have all worked on these elements individually, but having them all at once is pretty unique,” Gray says. “That has been the work in the rehearsal room.”
Counterclockwise: Brian Mani (professor), Marcella Kearns (Pickles), Elyse Edelman (Sonia), William Bolz (Vanya), Sarah Day (Babs), Rána Roman (Ella), Reese Madigan (Dr. Aster). Photo by Ross Zentner.
Forward advisory company member Sarah Day, who plays the outspoken and wise Babs in Life Sucks, introduced the script to Gray. Day met the now Washington D.C. based Posner through Spring Green’s American Players Theatre, where she has been a member of the acting company since 1986 and he frequently directs.
Like the play’s inspiration Uncle Vanya, Life Sucks is set in a simple country house. To add another Wisconsin connection, scenic designer Mike Lawler based the play’s environment off Door County, including a cherry tree, referencing the area’s staple fruit and another one of Chekhov’s plays, The Cherry Orchard.
The tenants stem, some more than others, from the source material. Sonia (Elyse Edelman), the Professor (Brian Mani)’s grown daughter, lives in the house year-round with Babs. Sonia feels insecure about her looks and is hopelessly in love with her much older neighbor Dr. Aster (Reese Madigan). Sonia’s uncle Vanya (William Bolz) is the caretaker of the house and is smitten by the Professor’s beautiful young wife Ella (Rána Roman) when the couple comes to visit. Also occupying the house is the quirky Pickles (Marcella Kearns), based off of Waffles from the original.
“If I had to characterize her in space nerd terms, which is frequent for me, I would say she’s an outer planet or a satellite,” Kearns says. “If we think of all the characters as planets in the solar system, when all of them go along the sun one way, she is like Uranus, which goes around the opposite way.”
Rána Roman as Ella and Marcella Kearns as Pickles. Photo by Ross Zentner.
Although Uncle Vanya premiered in the late 1890s, Posner’s adaptation takes place in modern time. Edelman notes that most of the humor in Life Sucks comes from Posner heightening the circumstances from Uncle Vanya.
“We are all characters who are trying our very best to get what we want and really screwing it up enormously,” Edelman says. “The one person who physically isn’t in the room is the playwright, however because there are a few of us who know him and have worked with him before, he very much is there and in an interesting way that I haven’t really experienced in other rehearsals before.”
Posner directed Edelman in Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s 2013 production of A Christmas Carol. Posner will return to Madison for a free, public talk about his career as a director and writer this Saturday, March 30 at The Playhouse at Overture Center for the Arts. Other adaptations of Chekhov’s plays by Posner include Stupid F-ing Bird and No Sisters based on The Seagull and Three Sisters, respectively.
“What Aaron has done so beautifully with some of the characters (in Life Sucks) that were not as fleshed out in Uncle Vanya, is give them a more colorful and rich back story,” Kearns says. “I think a lot of the core of who these people are has stayed the same, but he has just given us more to work with.”
“Life Sucks,” presented by Forward Theater Company, runs March 28 – April 14 at The Playhouse at Overture Center for the Arts. For tickets visit forwardtheater.com or call the box office at (608) 258-4141.