By Mary Boyle
In modern theater, the "fourth wall" — the imaginary wall that separates the audience from the actors on the stage — is rarely breached, but in Madison native Aaron Posner's recent play, a "sort of" adaptation of Russian playwright Anton Chekhov's 1898 play, Uncle Vanya, the fourth wall is nearly obliterated, along with just about every other theatre standard, to thoroughly modernize a tale of love, longing, and loss. Leave it to Madison's Forward Theater Company to make sure this funny and refreshing production gets a proper production in the playwright's hometown; a play with a title as snarky and pessimistic as its characters: Life Sucks.
By all accounts, the characters in Posner's play, directed by Jennifer Uphoff Gray, could be almost any modern family: some members are connected by blood, others by friendship or marriage, and some are simply inherited, somehow; in other words, they are odd and messy. Sonia (Elyse Edelman) lives in her childhood home with her late mother's best friend, Babs (Sarah Day), her mother's brother, Uncle Vanya (William Bolz), and the ever-present Pickles (Marcella Kearns), an unusual lady who lives above the garage. A regular visitor to the house is Dr. Aster (Reese Madigan), who is Vanya's best friend since childhood and who is unknowingly the object of Sonia's desire. The normal chaos in their household is being disrupted by a visit from Sonia's pompous, pretentious father, known as "The Professor" (Brian Mani), and his gorgeous and much younger third wife, Ella (Rana Roman), who is the object of both Vanya and Dr. Aster's desire.
Life Sucks is unusual in that all seven characters are fully aware that they are in a play, but not actors in a play. As they engage with each other in life's gavotte, their love, longing, and losses are revealed and, along with them, life's great truths in all of their pain and glory; nothing new, really, but just beautiful in their honesty and recognition. Milwaukee theatre regulars will recognize Reese Madigan and Rana Roman as Mr. and Mrs. Bob Cratchit from The Rep's A Christmas Carol, as well as Elyse Edelman, who is frequently seen on Milwaukee stages and is well cast as Sonia. Marcella Kearns, who is often seen in the role of Director or Educator in Milwaukee, is fabulously strange as Pickles. Brian Mani was most recently seen in Junk at The Rep, and delivers another excellent performance as The Professor. William Bolz and Sarah Day, who are both Forward Theater Advisory Company members, along with Rana Roman, give fantastic performances as the brooding Vanya and wise and eccentric Babs, respectively.
What I truly enjoyed about this play was the absolute honesty and familiarity of it, even as the characters and their reactions are exaggerations of the norm, which is the key to the comedy of it. In the first act, Dr. Aster, who is lamenting on the repetitiveness of his life, says, "There can not be anything more ridiculous in modern life than a treadmill." These types of insight, a complete disregard for polite language, and the awareness and engagement of the audience make for a highly enjoyable two hours of theatre as the characters try to determine if life really does, in fact, suck. Make a day of it and spend some time in the Capitol Square with a good friend, as I did, and I guarantee that you won't think life sucks at all.
Life Sucks runs through April 14th at The Playhouse at the Overture Center, located at 201 State Street in Madison. Tickets are available by calling the Box Office at 608-258-4141, in person at the Box Office, or online at https://www.forwardtheater.com.
About Forward Theater
Forward Theater Company is a not-for-profit professional theater company founded to provide exceptional theater experiences for area audiences and give professional actors, designers, and directors an artistic home. Forward Theater Company is proud be a resident organization in the beautiful Overture Center for the Arts, providing opportunities for artists and audiences to explore great dramas and provoke conversations about the issues that matter the most.