Love, Loss, and Longing at The Open Book

By Daniel Skora

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Joshua R. Brown as Vanya and Linda Rabin Hammell as Babs All Photos by Krista Schafer Embank

The organismal state, characterized by a capacity for metabolism, growth, reaction to stimuli, and reproduction, when exposed to substantive verities which are both unpleasant and repellant in their realization, create in their manifestation cognitive susceptibilities which serve to undermine feelings of euphoria in their host. Put more simply, life sucks.

The above definition is one the character of The Professor might use in elucidating, with his own inflated rhetoric, the meaning of “Life Sucks”, the current presentation of The Open Book Theatre. It’s a drama/comedy adapted (sort of, as the program says) by Aaron Posner from Chekov’s play “Uncle Vanya”. And if the “love” part of its theme seems at odds with the play’s title, it’s just one ambiguity in a contemporary play that has its roots in 19th century Russia.

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Jonathan Davidson as Dr. Aster and Taylor Morrow as Sonia

Seven persons are gathered in a country home. They are an eclectic bunch, familiar with each other but not all familial. Sonia (Taylor Morrow) is the young woman who owns the home. She considers herself plain and unattractive, and as a result suffers from poor self esteem. She is, however, attracted to Dr. Aster (Jonathan Davidson) who, in spite of his professional status, sees life as an exercise in futility.

Vanya (Joshua R. Brown), is Sonia’s uncle and the caretaker of the estate. The Professor (Dale Dobson), is a retired university educator with fears of growing old. Ella (Caitlin Morrison) is his beautiful and much younger second wife. Babs (Linda Rabin Hammell) has an artistic nature and came to Sonia’s home years ago when Sonia’s mother died and has been there ever since. Pickles (Mandy Logsdon), is a woman-child with a penchant for making crafty things and the play’s source of many of its lighter moments.

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Dale Dobson as The Professor and Caitlin Morrison as Ella

You’ll need a scorecard to keep track of who’s in love with whom and how deep their longing for fulfillment goes.  Sonia’s in love with Doctor Aster. Both the doctor and Vanya are in love with Ella. Ella seems conflicted about the proposed affections of not only the two men, but her husband as well. Pickles still pines for a woman she loved and lost some seventeen years ago. And The Professor wishes he were more capable of providing the kind of amorous love his wife deserves.

As such, “Life Sucks” is a play built around love, loss, and longing. In a play where everyone gets their 15 minutes of fame, or, more correctly, their chance at a soliloquy, Vanya surfaces as its primary focus. He, among the play’s several lovers hoping to find fulfillment, is the most conflicted. When his actions get out of hand, the other characters have to stage an intervention.

There’s much to like about “Life Sucks”. It’s intelligent and thought provoking, and with many of today’s plays being written for casts of two to four characters, it’s good to be able to experience a play where the author comfortably handles a cast of seven. The play is also very theatrical in its presentation, with actors breaking the fourth wall to periodically address the audience. There’s even a little audience participation. The Open Book’s production is well cast and well played. The two rooms of the country house which make up the set (designed by Krista Schafer Ewbank who also wears the hats of director, producer, and sound designer) nicely fills the Open Book stage even while providing plenty of room for the cast to maneuver.

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Logsdon (fore), Hammell (back), Dobson, Morrison, Davidson, Brown, and Morrow

And what of those who go to the theatre primarily to be entertained and think Chekov is what’s to be done when you’ve accomplished something on your to-do list? Those patrons may find the play a bit wordy, filled with spurts of psychological and philosophical discourse. The play also lacks a clearly focused plotline, highlighting instead its  characters, which for the most part are a fidgety and irritable bunch, about as cheery as a Texas city after Harvey has come and gone.

“Life Sucks”, a Michigan premier, begins The Open Book’s fourth season. The show runs through September 30th. Lighting design is by Harley Miah and Danielle Gilbert serves as stage manager for the production. Tickets can be purchased online via credit card or by mailing a check to Open Book Theatre Company at 1621 West Road, Trenton MI 48183. Further information is available by phone at 1.734.288.7753, via email at openbooktheatrecompany@gmail.com, or at their website at www.openbooktc.com.


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