nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
March 29, 2008
Theatre Lila's Firecracker is, forgive me, a veritable explosion of theatrical dynamism. It fuses Chekhov with contemporary physical theatre in a way that helps us understand why both are so invaluable to us; director/adaptor Jessica Lanius has created a whole that is far greater than the sum of its formidable parts. I can't remember being so exhilarated at the theatre recently. This is a cultural adventure not to be missed.
Firecracker is based on the untitled play by Anton Chekhov that many now know as Platonov (or Wild Honey, in the Michael Frayn adaptation). It tells the story of Addison, a schoolteacher in a dead-end Midwestern American town. He's married to Sarah, a woman who will never be able to challenge or satisfy him intellectually. He's being pursued rather avidly by Anna, a widow who lives on a nearby estate; though her holdings are large, she is actually broke and deeply in debt. Even though a marriage to her wealthy neighbor George Phillips would fix her financial situation, she nevertheless is determined to have Addison as her lover. For his part, Addison wants Sophia, the young, beautiful, lively wife of Anna's step-son Bradley; they were lovers in college and he seems to believe, when he sees her for the first time in years at a Summer Solstice party on Anna's estate, that Sophia may be the panacea for all of his anomie and ills.
Additional complications arise from the musical prodigy Gretchen, with whom Addison has a love/hate relationship of surprising passion; Nick, Sarah's brother, a doctor who never seems able to cure his patients; Albert, a local boy who made good, now owning some 63 taverns, to whom Anna is severely indebted; and Rusty, a local thief who does odd jobs for Anna because he is infatuated with her.
Lanius convincingly evokes a Midwest landscape worthy of The Rainmaker's N. Richard Nash or William Inge, but she never strays from her play's Chekhovian roots. Indeed, because her source material is relatively unfamiliar but the archetypal characters involved in it are not, Firecracker almost feels like meta-Chekhov: a melange or convergence of the great playwright's preoccupations and themes, laid out on stage for our edification and delectation and contemplation.
More important, she understands the great cosmic joke that Chekhov first put on stage (and that Beckett and the absurdists amplified). The first act of Firecracker is light-headed and leisurely, introducing us to the various characters and their predilections and complaints; most of what these people say and do is laughable, but Lanius's deliberately abstract and overtly physical staging puts it all at sufficient remove so that we don't laugh at anybody or anything; rather I found myself strangely drawn in and empathetic in spite of myself. But in Act Two, when Addison's world comes crashing down rather severely around him, Lanius uses the same theatrical techniques to remind us how foolishly curious life always is. Addison becomes the most tragic of clowns—or the most clownlike of tragic heroes.
The play is performed with spectacular panache and energy by its accomplished cast of 11. Scott Giguere anchors the story as its sympathetic egoist protagonist, Addison. Jennifer Donlin exudes imperious entitlement as the spoiled widow Anna, while Gregory D. Manley nicely exemplifies her lightweight stepson. Richard Waddingham and Paul L. Coffey are splendidly physical as George and Albert, and Liam Joynt and James Patrick Flynn create fine comical yet three-dimensional men as Nick and Nick's father, a past-his-prime army colonel. David Randolph Irving is unexpectedly touching as the thief Rusty; his scene at the top of the second act with Sarah (Alexis Dominique Slade) is one of the most moving and heartfelt in the show. Rounding out the company are Eunice Ha as Sophia and Francile Albright as Gretchen.
The set design and lighting by Michael A. Reese features a number of surprising touches that I don't want to spoil. Ellen Pittman Stockbridge's costumes and Bill Barclay's soundscape perfectly complement the proceedings. (I particularly liked the fact that each of the men, except for Addison, has his own distinctive hat.) Lanius uses the entire theatre, including the aisles and the space behind the audience, and she has all her actors barefoot throughout. Both of these devices feel not only organic but utterly integral to her style of storytelling, which puts all of us—actors and audience members alike—into the center ring of the crazy circus that is life.