Stages

Review: In Artistic Home’s Vanya on the Plains, a Futuristic Society Gains Chekhovian Eloquence

Nall and Scambiaterra, foreground. Photo by Joe Mazza, Brave Lux Photography.

Vanya in the Plains is a memory play, laden with strangeness. People living together, never leaving their house, desperately trying to make connections, virtual and otherwise. Set in the Future, the play describes a dystopian society, where the Plains are surrounded by the even worse Outlands. In the midst of this society, a man named Elijah (Frank Nall) decides he wants to put on a play for his 79th birthday, even though almost no one knows what a play is. In this world premiere at the Artistic Home, playwright Jason Hedrick and director Kayla Adams imagine a world where people lead controlled lives and don’t have much opportunity for happiness.  But gradually, over two acts and two hours, they learn the beauty of language, become aware of what theater means and how it can change their lives.

Elijah and Gayle (Kathy Scambiaterra) are the older folks, the people from the past, who live in the Plains. Elijah owns six books, and cries over a William Carlos Williams poem that reminds him of his late wife. Gayle is even older, the mother of Elijah’s late wife. She drinks a lot of vodka. They both remember plays. Elijah is a Content Moderator, a job that involves sitting in a cubicle and watching hours of evil and violent activities; it does not make him happy. After years of doing this, he fears he’ll be sent away to the Outlands.

The younger people in this family don’t know about plays. They don’t leave the house. Everyone takes pills. Screens have mostly gone away, but something called Dives replace them. Anka (Katherine Schwartz), Elijah’s daughter, talks to the holograph of her possibly late husband, who was disappeared by the NCTP. Her son Nicolas (Benjamin Zarbock) is in an NDN (Neural Dialogic Narrative), where he sometimes sees old noir movies. Her daughter Sophia (Ariana Lopez) is in love with a woman she has only met virtually; they’ve dream-shared. There’s a foot fetish thing (a sign of affection?). And some occasionally sit down and speak to an invisible NCTP big brother, in a session that might begin: “NCTP Cross-star Penguin-2584.”  (That’s Sophia.)

Nall and Schwartz as Elijah and Anka. Photo by Joe Mazza, Brave Lux Photography.

Plays by Chekhov is one of Frank’s books. He decides the one thing he wants to do is put on Uncle Vanya. He will have to explain what a play is to all the younger ones. What it means to speak the lines like another person, a “character” you are pretending to be. Gayle has her doubts about this idea. “Who’s going to do it? See it?” Elijah answers, “Us. We’ll do it. And we’ll invite people.”

Gayle agrees to participate. Nicolas would like to play a detective, wearing a fedora and trenchcoat, but agrees to play Vanya. Anka, while repeating her holographic conversation over and over, will be Yelena. Sophia will be Sonya. The expressionless Carl (Mark Pracht), Anka’s sort of boyfriend who works in the Outlands, will play Astrov, the doctor.

Vanya on the Plains may be a strange and memory-laden play, but it has lovely moments in act two, as some characters begin speaking like their Chekhov characters.

Hedrick’s play has interesting and beautiful elements, but needs some work to smooth out and perhaps abbreviate the dialogue and refine the way the worlds of Plains and Outlands are defined. Director Adams has done a sterling job of delineating this society and the wounded characters who inhabit it. Nall and Scambiaterra both make their characters come fully alive and Zarbock, a young actor in his first play outside high school, is a memorable Nicolas. One amusing surprise for Artistic Home regulars is seeing Brookelyn Hebert, who played the elegant intellectual Ada Byron in Ada and the Machine, appear in a totally different role and appearance in act two.

Kevin Hagan’s scenic design, featuring traditional furniture and a mesh dropped ceiling, is complemented by Mark Bracken’s lighting and Petter Wahlbäck’s sound design, creates a large, multi-use living space. Costumes are by Zachary Wagner.

Playwright Hedrick has written several other plays and is working on a Ph.D. in performance studies at Southern Illinois University.

Vanya on the Plains continues at the Artistic Home, 1376 W. Grand Ave., through October 27. Tickets are $28-$32 for performances Thursday-Sunday.

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