Lookingglass Theatre’s Production of Life Sucks Proves that It Really Doesn’t

Jemison, Robertson, Ortlieb, Zuckerman, Walker. Photo by Liz Lauren. Jemison, Robertson, Ortlieb, Zuckerman, Walker. Photo by Liz Lauren. Do you think life sucks? And that the world is totally fucked up? You’ll give that some thought and may get to voice your opinion during Lookingglass Theatre’s delightful production of Aaron Posner’s play of that name, directed by Andrew White. Life Sucks is Posner’s sort-of adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, that often-performed masterpiece in which members of the rural bourgeoisie loll about, falling in love with the wrong people and longing to change their miserable lives. What is the play about? Love, longing and loss, as the characters tell us in their prologue. The basic elements of the human condition. By the end of most any Chekhov play, I want to stand up and shout, “So you don’t like your lives? Then do something about it!” And amazingly, that’s exactly how Posner ends his play. Smith and Walker. Smith and Walker. In two-plus lively hours, we learn that most everyone is in love with either the sexy Ella (Chaon Cross) or the handsomely inebriated Dr. Astor (Philip R. Smith). Or that they’re still longing for a lost love, as is the adorable Pickles (played by Penelope Walker). Another character, mourning the miseries and indignities of aging, is the arrogant academic, the Professor (Jim Ortlieb), whose young wife is Ella. His declining income comes from the revenues from the property (owned by his late first wife) but he lives in the city. Vanya (Eddie Jemison) is middle-aged and dispirited about life. He and his niece Sonia (Danielle Zuckerman), the professor’s daughter, hang around and manage the property. Sonia firmly believe that life sucks and that she won’t survive because Dr. Astor doesn’t notice her because she’s plain. And Babs (Barbara E. Robertson) plays the wise woman who manages to impart love, affection and wisdom to Sonia and tries to give it to her son, Vanya. She tells him, Life is just exactly life, you know that, right? And we should be grateful every day for the great and mysterious gift that it is. And yet… we find the most extraordinary ways to fuck it all up for ourselves.” Life Sucks is not as ironic or witty as Posner’s earlier Chekhov adaptation, Stupid Fucking Bird, which Sideshow Theatre staged here in 2015. Bird is delightfully wacky and a bit snarky. Another adaptation of Chekhov themes was Goodman Theatre’s 2015 production of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, by Christopher Durang, which was played more for laughs than poignancy. Life Sucks is a warmer take on the Chekhovian perspective that lives are doomed to be fraught with angst and frustration. It’s often funny but always warm-hearted. Jemison, Robertson, Ortlieb and Cross. Jemison, Robertson, Ortlieb and Cross. But Life Sucks takes one important step that Chekhov always seemed to avoid. If you have been frustrated with Chekhov’s characters in the past, you’ll be pleased when Vanya asks Dr. Astor “What am I supposed to do?” and Dr. Astor replies, “Move! Quit your job! Study Egyptian basket weaving or or or Hindu macramé. Buy a bike. Learn to bake. Sell all your belongings on eBay and move to Kenosha, Wisconsin, or East Jabip or outer fucking Mongolia! But, Heavens to Murgatroyd, man, IF YOU DON'T LIKE YOUR LIFE, THEN FUCKING DO SOMETHING TO MAKE IT BETTER!” And a few moments later, each character in turn says to Vanya, “What, am I supposed to feel sorry for you?” and then explains why they don’t. It is an immensely satisfying ending to a Chekhovianesqueish play. The self-referential production allows the actors to repeatedly break that fourth wall and converse with the audience. Ella at one point puzzles over what to do about her desirability and asks the audience to acknowledge if any one of them would like to sleep with her. And finally, all the characters gather at the end for an epilogue to talk with us. They approach individual audience members and ask, “What do you think? Does life suck?” After a few responses, Pickles announces “End of play.” Andrew White does a superb job of choreographing the performers around the multiple playing areas of the set. He also brings out all the energy and joy in Posner’s script. And he has an excellent cast to work with. The play runs 2 hours and 20 minutes and is divided into four acts, with an intermission between acts two and three. The beautifully designed set (by Brian Sidney Bembridge, who also designed the lighting) shows the rear deck of a country house, with a distinctly Russian feel in the roofline. The house is surrounded by birch trees and the set offers places for actors to sit and perch on several levels so that the action seems to move dynamically. Mieka van der Ploeg created the often funky modern costuming. Andre Pluess and Chris LaPorte are sound designers. Life Sucks (originally subtitled, “The Present Ridiculous,” continues through November 6 at Lookingglass Theatre, inside the historic Water Works at 821 N. Michigan at Pearson. Performances are Wednesday-Sunday with two performances on some days. Tickets for $35-80 can be bought online or by phone at 312-337-0665.
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Nancy S Bishop

Nancy S. Bishop is publisher and Stages editor of Third Coast Review. She’s a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and a 2014 Fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. You can read her personal writing on pop culture at nancybishopsjournal.com, and follow her on Twitter @nsbishop. She also writes about film, books, art, architecture and design.