When a theater critic encounters unexpected radiance on stage — as in CSU Summer Stage's production of Chekhov in Yalta — he has to struggle to prevent himself from becoming a cliché-spouting sycophant.
But I can't stop myself from proclaiming the John Driver and Jeffrey Haddow fantasia on the final days of Anton Chekhov as a reward for all those virtuous souls who aced their theater-appreciation classes and paid their PBS pledges. It is baffling that a work laden with such wit, nuance and compassion could fly under the radar for three decades, as this one has. Where were the Pulitzer committee, the Kevin Kline Broadway production and the Oscar-winning Meryl Streep film version of this play?
A financially failing Moscow Art Theater company that has descended on Yalta finds Chekhov taking a curative rest there. They press him to give them his latest play, but — since he loathed their earlier productions of his work — Chekhov has already sent it to their rivals. On the side, there's a touching love story between the dying playwright and the glamorous actress Olga Knipper.
The play's greatest feat is the way it lovingly echoes Chekhov's actual works. The production itself was like watching alchemy happen. To start at the top, we pay tribute to the director Cathy Hartenstein. Rarely has the magic hand of a skilled director been so evident. She brings effective casting, an understanding of the historical character's nuance, style and period, and created incredible visuals with blocking and pacing.
Not to forget the actors. The rueful compassion of Greg Violand's Chekhov, the rose-hued, gentle elegance of Tracee Patterson's Olga, the bombastic, egotistical fervor of Doug Miller's Stanislavski, and the comic/melancholy verve of the rest of the company all combine to create an exquisite living canvas.