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Chekhov and Maria at the Barrow Group Theatre
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Chekhov and Maria at the Barrow Group Theatre

- Backstage with the Playwrights

Memorial Tribute to Jovanka Bach (1936-2006)
A John Stark Production

Chekhov and Maria
By Jovanka Bach
Ron Bottitta as Anton Chekhov
(Chekhov Bio)
Gillian Brashear as Maria Chekhov
At the
Barrow Group Theatre
312 West 36th Street

Produced and Directed by John Stark
Production Manager, Lighting & Sound Design: Joe Morrissey
Designer, ASM & Property Manager: Jaret Sacrey
Costume Designer: Zale Morris
Press: Ron Lasko

Dr. Roberta E. Zlokower
July 21, 2006

Jovanka Bach, a dermatologist, wrote a dozen plays in her off-work hours. One of those plays was Chekhov and Maria, about the playwright, Chekhov’s, final years, as he struggled with tuberculosis. Chekhov, himself, was also a doctor, a general practitioner, and Jovanka Bach, herself, was also suffering from a fatal illness. The two artists have converged in one of the most interesting and engaging dramatic plays I have seen in some time, and, in this case, Ron Bottitta and Gillian Brashear succeeded in the challenge of bringing to life Dr. Anton Chekhov and his sister, Maria Chekhov.

The play is set in early 1900’s, sea-side Yalta at Chekhov’s home, with antique oak furniture, a “fainting” couch, oriental rugs, pink wallpaper, a small upright desk, two buffets, a wooden coat rack, an upright piano, red brocade, tie-back drapes, and family photos. Maria takes care of her brother like a nurse, a wife, or a “spinster” sister. She carefully places a cloth napkin on his leg, as she serves him tea and cake. She gives him a bowl of water to wash his hands or his brow. She manages the home (his home, apparently) and cares for the roses like children. She also expects loyalty, that is, a brother sworn to bachelorhood, as she once rejected a marital proposal, based on Chekhov’s “body language” of silence.

When she learns of Chekhov’s secret marriage to the frivolous, flirtatious actress, Olga Leonardovna Knipper, who stars in his plays (such as the role of Masha in The Three Sisters), she angers to a boiling point. It is only learned later why she feels so betrayed and alienated. This family news is brought to Maria, courtesy of the town gossip, via a very old-fashioned telephone, with a very long, thick cord. In fact, the phone is used frequently, in order for Maria to confer (and conspire) with Chekhov’s personal physician. The physician is used to help keep Chekhov home and safe, rather than out-of-town and in the arms of Olga, Maria’s perceived nemesis. Maria, in the course of two acts, possesses her brother’s actual space, but not his mind, as he continually writes to, thinks of, and creates roles for Olga. Her letters are often hidden from the lovelorn and afflicted Chekhov, as he deteriorates into the effects of tuberculosis.

Other off-stage characters, in addition to the town gossip, the wife, Olga, Maria’s rejected suitor (who tries to make a comeback), and the doctor, are the renowned playwright, Maxim Gorky, Chekhov’s good friend, Konstantin Stanislavsky, the director of the Moscow Arts Theatre, where Chekhov’s plays were produced, and a variety of mail deliverers, carriage drivers, and gardeners. The telephone is used for local calls only, with a personal operator, and the mail system is used for all other communication, allowing Olga and Chekhov to speak to each other through letters, sometimes read onstage and sometimes read off-stage (in the supposed walkway or in a spotlight of “privacy”). In fact, Joe Morrissey’s lighting design was quite clever, with even a bolt of lightning, as well as outdoor shifts in time.

Zale Morris’ seasonal costumes were era-perfect, with Ms. Brashear in long, full, matronly dresses, and Mr. Bottitta in wide-brimmed hat, vest, and pocket watch. The piano came alive once, as Ms. Brashear actually played Chopin, while the intermissions entertained the audience with recorded Chopin Nocturnes. Throughout this performance, Mr. Bottitta and Ms. Brashear brimmed with love and friction, the stuff of all relationships. As these were two siblings, the two-person play lacked the softness that couple chemistry often creates onstage, at least as an interlude to spark-filled sparring. However, the surprise ending was worth the wait. And, fittingly, delivered in a letter.

I would have liked to hear more readings in Chekhov’s words, as his stories and plays are ever so eloquent. There was one passage, though, soliloquized by Mr. Bottitta, that was also worth the wait. The rumination about and development of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard stirred an interest in seeing this play recreated, and I hope to see it again when produced. Chekhov’s plays are about people and the society that shapes their hopes, losses, and destiny. The scripts did not mask feelings and disappointments. Stanislavsky, Chekhov’s director, with whom Chekhov also sparred, was known for naturalism, acting through total role identity.

It’s wonderful to have theatre such as this, produced by Jovanka Bach’s husband, in loving memory. It was inspiring, thought-provoking, and professionally performed. Hopefully, more of Ms. Bach’s plays will be seen in the future, as well as those of Chekhov. Riveting theatre like this is rare.

Ron Bottitta and Gillian Brashear as Chekhov and Maria
Photo courtesy of Nathan Franklin

Ron Bottitta and Gillian Brashear as Chekhov and Maria
Photo courtesy of Nathan Franklin

Ron Bottitta and Gillian Brashear as Chekhov and Maria
Photo courtesy of Nathan Franklin

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For more information, contact Dr. Roberta E. Zlokower at