ArtsWest, 4711 California Ave. S.W., 938-0339, artswest.org. $15–$46.50. 7:30 p.m. Wed.–Sat., 3 p.m. Sun. Ends Feb. 15.
At first, the biggest thing 20-something Leo (Adam Standley under a hipster mop) and his acerbic widowed grandmother Vera (Susan Corzatte) seem to have in common is confusion. His stems from the plethora of choices ahead of him, hers from incipient Alzheimer’s. When he, slow-witted and smelly from his cross-country bike ride from Seattle, walks into Vera’s New York apartment (a spacious, book-filled urbane safari as conceived by Burton K. Yuen), Vera’s dismay is palpable—as though she’s watching the downward mobility of her family become a mudslide. Safely ensconced in the comedy-of-manners genre, we spend a fun 100 minutes (with no intermission) watching these lovable Odd Couple roomies offend, oblige, and predictably re-offend each other with relatively little at stake. All four performances are delicious, including those of Adria LaMorticella (as Leo’s enigmatic girlfriend, Becca) and the typhoon-like Sara Porkalob (as his new love prospect, Amanda).
Enjoyable as 4,000 Miles may be, this is not an ambitious play like Amy Herzog’s pioneer effort, After the Revolution, in which a young woman’s family legacy falls apart when she learns her supposedly revolutionary grandfather betrayed his comrades; nor even like Belleville, in which meaner main characters claw their way self-hatingly through life. (Both await Seattle stagings.) Rather, this 2012 comedy is a mostly sweet stroll on the High Line, warm as a July breeze, studded with harmlessly withering one-liners and darkened only by the shadows of Leo’s best friend’s death on the bike trip and Vera’s fading memory.
Herzog’s signature interest in the intersection of personal issues and political movements comes to the fore when Leo brings Chinese-American Amanda home, and they face off over how communism “made” both their families. Leo’s grandparents were proud (and well-off) Marxists, while Amanda’s escaped China after the Cultural Revolution to get rich founding a dim sum empire. That communism could have such different valences for different people is the first cleft in Leo’s ego armor, the first crack in the doofus eggshell from which he’ll hatch. Growing into mensch-itude forms the only dramatic arc here. Though it may seem trivial, big-heartedness goes a long way in a theatrical (and political) era that all too often mistakes meanness for wit and perfidy for plot. In terms of heartspace, director Mathew Wright’s 4,000 Miles covers a lot of ground. Margaret Friedman
PThe Piano Lesson
Seattle Repertory Theatre, 155 Mercer ST. (Seattle Center), 443-2222, seattlerep.org. $17–$102. 7:30 Wed.–Sun. plus matinees. Ends Feb. 8.
The age-old dilemma of whether to preserve sad history or plow right over it undergirds many of August Wilson’s plays, including this, the fourth of 10 in his touchstone “Pittsburgh Cycle.” The dilemma tugs like an undertow beneath the lore-rich three-hour saga precisely because both options are valid, commendable, imperative, and mutually exclusive. At the center of what escalates into a property war sits a blood- and tear-burnished family piano representing both the tortured past and the potentially promising future of an African-American clan in 1936. If you can’t simultaneously afford both future and past, which do you choose?
Berniece Charles (Erika LaVonn) wants to keep the past—including the piano—close. For her, the magnificent instrument—carved to depict her ancestors during slavery—is like a revered elder for whom multiple lives were sacrificed. For her brother Boy Willie (Stephen Tyrone Williams), eager to invest in land their family used to work as slaves and then sharecroppers, the piano represents a ticket to economic independence. On William Bloodgood’s drably respectable living-room set, the exquisitely rendered instrument shimmers with otherworldly power.
Berniece’s home churns like a busy tidepool. Uncles Doaker (Derrick Lee Weeden) and Wining Boy (G. Valmont Thomas) impeccably tell labyrinthine stories yet exemplify the career limitations for black men of the era. Willie’s friend Lymon (Yaegel T. Welch) pines and prostrates himself for women; preacher Avery (Ken Robinson) courts a stony Berniece; and good-time gal Grace (a very wiggly Allison Strickland) calls on Willie. Director Timothy Bond—formerly local, now with Syracuse Stage—orchestrates breezy informality, and some of the richest chords involve bursts of harmonized blues and pot-banging percussion by composer Michael G. Keck.
Still, as in real life, there are laggy times. Perhaps too heavily, Wilson’s 1990 Pulitzer winner relies on supernatural elements to shake things up and resolve the plot. There are ominous noises and electrical blackouts, plus offstage manifestations of a ghost—the white landowner, recently drowned in the well—at the top of the stairs. These occult tendencies can feel like a bit of a deus ex machina cop-out, given our emotional investment in Berniece and Willie, whose unresolved sibling conflict concludes with a didactic lesson from beyond. But it doesn’t ruin the pleasures of uniformly fine acting, a changed historical context since the last local staging in ’93, and the sense of enduring kinship. Audience and performers still steep in the glow of that tempestuous heirloom. Margaret Friedman
PThe Three Sisters
ACT Theatre, 700 Union St., 292-7676, acttheatre.org. $15–$25. 7:30 p.m. Thurs.–Sat. Plus 2 p.m. Sun. Ends Feb. 8.
In 1995, a production of The Three Sisters at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre altered my entire existence and activated an adoration of all things Chekhov. Twenty years later, The Seagull Project’s current revival only increases that ardor.
The plot of this 1900 classic can be summed up as “Three sisters want to move to Moscow and never do.” They pine for, and opine about, a sophisticated life in their urbane birthplace; yet, because of bad marriages, gambling addictions, and myriad other offstage conflicts, their dream remains unfulfilled. However, Chekhov marvelously infuses his static story with melancholy wit, as Olga (Julie Briskman), Masha (Alexandra Tavares), and Irina (Sydney Andrews) lament living in a provincial town where knowing three languages is “an unnecessary encumbrance, like a sixth finger.”
Chekhov resides somewhere between naturalism and a heightened, almost enchanted realm. Directed by John Langs, this production expertly achieves both effects, allowing our imaginations to roam between them. Jennifer Zeyl’s simple, stark white set transports us to dull, wintery Russian hinterlands while providing an impeccable canvas for Robert J. Aguilar’s evocative lighting. Doris Black’s anachronistic costumes mix styles and periods; each sister is dressed differently to indicate her distinct personality and internal state. Black even boldly outfits Natasha (brother Andrey’s low-class wife, played by Hannah Victoria Franklin) in modern-day lingerie, which no respectable woman in imperial Russia would wear to greet her guests.
True to the Stanislavsky tradition, this is a well-rehearsed ensemble. Briskman, Tavares, and Andrews adroitly ensnare you in their characters’ anticipations and agonies. It’s impossible not to feel empathy. When Olga exclaims her exhaustion, you feel fatigued. When Masha bemoans her boredom, you experience ennui. When Irina specifies the satisfaction of work (a novelty for women in pre-Soviet times), you desire to don a blue collar. These splendid performances live up to the stellar script.
Why, 100 years after the revolution put an end to Chekhov’s Russia, does this masterpiece still hold up? Hope and despair are timeless. Most of us “know,” like the Prozorov daughters, that we’ll be happier when we lose weight, get that job, or meet that special someone. And the lack of a deus ex machina ending—or any clear resolution—in Chekhovian drama leaves us haunted and forever suspended. Each of us has our own unsatisfied objective. Our own Moscow. Alyssa Dyksterhouse