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Chekhov with an Irish brogue
Irish Heritage Theatre presents Brian Friel’s The Bear and Afterplay
Critics and scholars often refer to Brian Friel as “the Irish Chekhov.” The late dramatist (1929-2015) tackled the Russian master head-on in The Bear and Afterplay, which form the current double bill from Irish Heritage Theatre (IHT) at Plays & Players.
Both Friel and Chekhov homed in on the minute details of their characters’ lives, which when rendered specifically and tenderly, can make for the most scintillating drama—as in IHT’s 2016 production of Friel’s Molly Sweeney, about the aftermath of a surgery that restores a blind woman’s eyesight, to less than felicitous effect. But in these two brief plays, each running less than an hour, the actual weight of Chekhov’s storytelling takes on an Irish brogue.
Although Peggy Mecham persuasively directs both works on attractively threadbare sets by Jack Zaferes, they don’t have equal impact. While The Bear entertains with its romantic comedy and the blustery bravado of its title character, played to the hilt by Brian McManus, the story of a louche nobleman who seduces the widow of his debtor ultimately overstays its welcome, its beats becoming obvious and tiresome long before its predictable climax. Friel adapted from one of Chekhov’s short stories, and you sense the results might seem more vivid on the page.
But in Afterplay, where Friel fuses together two of Chekhov’s most tragically forlorn characters, his feeling for achingly introspective writing comes alive. Set in a down-market Moscow café in the 1920s, the action brings together Sonya Serebriakova, the wistful working-class daughter from Uncle Vanya, and Andrey Prozorov, the spoiled man-child brother from Three Sisters, for an imagined tryst.
Both well into middle age when the action begins, Sonya (Kirsten Quinn) and Andrey (Rob Hargraves) reckon with lives defined by disappointment. They also can’t resist gilding the lily, impressing each other with fabulations that any observer could sniff out in a second. The ultimate goal seems to be that in fantasy, they can approximate something closer to the existences they’ve always wanted, with Andrey a respected musician and Sonya requited in her love for the callous Dr. Astrov.
Quinn and Hargraves skillfully strip away the artifice until Sonya and Andrey are left with nothing to give each other except the truth. It is moving and heartening to watch a true kinship grow between them, as they recognize that their flaws and frustrations are as valuable as the hopes and dreams they have abandoned. Hargraves especially excels in his presentation of a family’s scion who squandered the mantle of expectations placed on his shoulders, with little more to show for his life than the tattered evening suit he wears to busk on the street with his violin. (The program lists no costume designer, but the outfits for both characters are superb.)
Both Three Sisters and Uncle Vanya end with illusion: that the Prozorov family will resume their vaunted lives in Moscow society, that Vanya and Sonya will find comfort in their subservient station. Afterplay brings the curtain down on bitter truth. Andrey and Sonya likely won’t find lasting happiness, but they can bask in the special moment they shared together, which allowed them to escape their sad reality for a while. According to Friel and Chekhov, sometimes that’s enough.
What, When, Where
The Bear and Afterplay. By Brian Friel, after Chekhov; directed by Peggy Mecham. $15-$25. Through March 19, 2023, at Plays & Players, 1714 Delancey Street, Philadelphia. irishheritagetheatre.org.
Plays & Players is a wheelchair-accessible venue; however, all-gender restrooms are located in the theater’s basement, which is accessible only by stairs.
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