I Take Your hand in Mine is based on the intimate letters written between Anton Chekhov at the end of his life and his wife Olga Knipper. It has come to the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop in the busiest holiday season and for the briefest of runs, but don’t lose the opportunity to see this beautifully honest work.
This is a play, the program tells you, about Chekhov not by Chekhov. Nonetheless, there could not have been more authoritative talent assembled to illuminate Chekhov’s delicious and delicate play of human emotions.
Could there be anything more sublime for all theatre lovers than experiencing mastery and passion of committed artists sharing their love and understanding of Chekhov, unfiltered by gimmicks or production razzle?
Could there be any more important lessons in acting than that found in watching two consummate actors in an intimate space practice their craft on surely the greatest world playwright who inspired the transformation into modern acting?
Author Carol Rocamora has built a career through her outstanding work translating Chekhov’s plays. For this she has excavated the correspondence of some 412 letters between Anton Chekhov in the last six years of his life and Olga, the actress from the Moscow Art Theatre who would become his supreme on-stage interpreter of his works, and, in short order, his muse, lover, and wife.
I Take Your Hand in Mine closes December 13, 2019. Details and tickets
In the brief span of six years, which marked the struggle and end of Chekhov’s life to tuberculosis, they gave to each other what the other needed in the most passionate of relationships. He was a close observer of her heart and talent. He wrote consummate dramatic works for her that played on her amazing instrument of emotions, unleashing them and giving them form and reason. She surely kept him alive with her abundance of vitality. As his most adoring fan, she poured her love into him, as she gushes near the start of the play,” You are so talented… our hope of Russia.”
The two actors, Rena Polley and Richard Sheridan Willis exquisitely show us the pulse of this relationship. Polley has clearly made a lifework of dedicating herself to Chekhov and his interpreters, including studying with Michael Chekhov, the master theoretician and acting teacher associated with the playwright and Stanislavski’s acting company.
With every shifting thought and emotion flooding her face, with every motivated gesture and connected breath to her gut, Polley shows us the sheer dedication to the craft of live theatre it takes. Make no mistake. (Or As Stella Adler, another great acting teacher in the school of realism, once said to Henry Winkler, “You don’t prepare for …[ to be a great classical actor] by playing the Fonz!”)
Polley is not afraid of showing the foolishness and self-absorption of an actress. When Chekhov tells her he’s writing a play, she pounces, “Is there a part for me?” She rages at Masha, Chekhov’s sister, and speaks scaldingly of Stanislavski’s wife, another actress in the company. In other moments she plummets into extremes of despair, judging her acting to be terrible and vowing never to act again.
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Richard Sheridan Willis is every bit Polley’s match in a delicious performance from start to finish. At the start of the play, he walks around the stage; he observes us in the audience and he observes the set, comprised of 5 dining room chairs, four strung together in a line. He stares frankly, if quizzically, and nails what we might call the “Chekhovian” dry but wry observational trait. He also reveals the playwright was capable of deep feeling and has a great capacity for compassion and forgiveness.
One of the greatest moment of tension comes after we’ve been prepared for seeing how their lives, often apart, put a strain on the relationship. Olga has enjoyed the late after-theatre nights in Moscow and the attention of her admirers, while Chekhov has been struggling to cling to life. Suddenly her letters stop. Worry turns to bitter suspicion on his part and uneasy guilt on hers. She pays a visit to him in Yalta. “Have you been a good wife? Have you?” he asks. It’s almost too painful to watch. Then there is a hint she might be expecting, a little “Grisha.” “But,” he says, “We’ve only been …” It’s impossible. But rather than scold or rant, he gently takes her in his arms, and accepts her as she is.
The details are blurry, but Olga returns to Moscow, and there is an operation. This was not something I ever uncovered in reading on Chekhov, but conceivable, and dramatically it is handled beautifully by Rocamora and the actors.
Credit for the production must be shared with director Dmitry Zhukovsky. He gets so many levels of emotion and shapes musical timing through many gestures and moments. And he directs with such a modicum of means. When he has Polley drape her arms over the backs of the chairs, and Willis gently runs his hand along the length of both arms, he captures their ardent passion. When Polly unbuckles then slips off her shoes and lies prone over the chairs, we understand they’ve reached a new level of domestic intimacy.
There’s a wonderfully tender moment when Chekhov gives Olga an acting lesson, and she’s going for it. Softly, he pulls her back onto a chair with the gentlest admonition, “Keep it light.”
Zhukovsky also gets the comedy. (How often in American productions of Chekhov does the style get pushed to broad raucousness or descend from sentimental bathos to lugubrious goo.) In Chekhov’s railing against Stanislavski’s directorial choices, he has Willis become suddenly possessed with authoritarian strength. Olga demures, “But we wept!” Willis yells, “ Cherry Orchard is not a ‘drama.’ It’s – (he bashes the wall full force)– a comedy!”
How wonderful that Taffety Punk has brought this production to Capitol Hill and continues to offer a “space to push ourselves.” Joining hands with the Chekhov Collective and Theátrus has only magnified the power of artistic collaboration.
I urge people to go this week. If you’ve a mind for a delicious bite beforehand or after, go around the corner on 8th to Mekki, a Moroccan Restaurant that just opened. You will be delighted by both experiences.
I Take Your Hand in Mine by Carol Rocamora. Suggested by the Love Letters of Anton Chekhov and Olga Knipper. Directed by Dmitry Zhukovsky. With Rena Polley and Richard Sheridan Willis. Presented by Taffety Punk Theatre Company, The Chekhov Collective and Theátrus at the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop. Reviewed by Susan Galbraith.