All in the Family

Making Gorky's hopeless tale of domestic chaos funny

Olympia Dukakis is not new to maternal roles. She played the ghost of an endearing mom on ACT's stage just two seasons ago in Michel Tremblay's For the Pleasure of Seeing Her Again. But the mother Dukakis originates in Constance Congdon's new adaptation of the early-20th-century Vassa Zheleznovadoesn't exactly smack of sweetness. "I should have smothered you in your crib," she says early on to her oldest son. And although we know this is a comedy, we get the feeling that she means it.

Congdon's play is called A Mother, but the man who wrote the script it's based on didn't have a mother for long. In fact, both of Aleksey Peshkov's parents died before he was 10, and by the time he was 15, the neglected and abused Russian orphan had been forced to leave home and work countless degrading jobs, including ragpicker, porter, fruit seller, railway employee, and bird catcher. When he was denied entrance to university (he only knew how to read because a cook had taught him during a dishwashing stint), he graduated to a failed suicide attempt, which left him with a pierced lung. After his first short story was published when he was 24, Peshkov took the pen name Maxim Gorky, which translates as "the bitter one."

One can taste bitterness in much of Gorky's work, and Vassais no exception. But Congdon has a fine ear for the sarcasm that often laces dramatic social commentary, and has deftly adapted this 1910 play into a comedy somewhat lighter than the original. Only one generation out of serfdom and just barely out of poverty, the family in A Mother is already being torn apart by greed. Vassa is old and tired, and her apathetic sons contribute nil to the family business. The pale-faced semicripple Pavel, who's 34, does nothing all day but whine about his physical impairment (here a lame arm and leg that linger behind him like a lethargic child unwillingly dragged out of bed) and repulse his beautiful wife, Liudmila. Meanwhile, Pavel's equally lazy but slightly younger brother, Semyon (along with his unpleasantly plump wife, Natalya), goofs around and overeats. With the family patriarch only heartbeats away from a syphilitic death, Vassa and her daughter, Anna, are about to be cheated out of any share of the family's fortune, which, under Russian law, is bequeathed to the male offspring. Though Vassa has been a stranger to Anna for years, the two headstrong women soon realize that it's in their best interests to stick together. Thus begins the plotting of some very dirty business, which includes falsified wills, homicidal ploys, and other healthy doses of betrayal.

Sad Sack: Pavel (John Keating) tries to make his 
mom (Olympia Dukakis) feel sorry for him.
Ken Friedman
Sad Sack: Pavel (John Keating) tries to make his mom (Olympia Dukakis) feel sorry for him.

Details

Adapted by Constance Congdon from a play by Maxim Gorky

Produced by the American Conservatory Theater

Through June 13

Tickets are $15-61

749-2228

www.act- sfbay.org.

Geary Theater, 415 Geary (at Powell), S.F.

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Vassa's aggression is so extreme it's amusing, and though she claims to have her children's best interests in mind, she's unfeeling toward their plights -- degrading them publicly, threatening them, and worse. She's determined to have control over the household at all costs, and doesn't see much point in letting emotions distract her. But when she says to Anna (played by a polished Marcia Pizzo), "So you think love is feelings? Love is food, shelter, clothing, heat, clean water. That's love," we realize that she's speaking not from meanness so much as from experience. Despite a few bumps on opening night, Dukakis' portrayal of Vassa is deep and multilayered, carrying a complex tragicomic realism that a less experienced actor might have trouble pulling off. We laugh at the character's unchecked cruelty, but we're also frightened of it.

There's some wonderful character acting in A Mother, especially the portrayal of the two sons and the family maid. John Keating is a pitifully grotesque but humorous Pavel; an obviously padded Reg Rogers is triumphantly hysterical as the fat, happy-go-lucky Semyon. Both traipse purposelessly around the house (Keating moping, Rogers zipping) in striped pajamas and robes (colorfully designed by Beaver Bauer). Jeri Lynn Cohen finds an arc of great depth with Lipa, the housemaid, whom we view as skittish and silly until a fuller disclosure of her own tragedies reveals her great suffering. An unpleasant reminder of the serfs from whom the family descended, Lipa is the helpless victim of their constant, unbridled abuse.

All the action takes place in the front room of the family's home, a gathering hall for the unending household nonsense that ensues in Congdon's well-constructed universe. A sitting room/office with swinging doors on all sides, this meeting place finds people continuously entering and exiting in waves and flurries -- usually because Vassa is aggressively clearing out the room. While the set (by Ralph Funicello) is sharp and functional, Garth Hemphill's sound can be awkward, specifically when voices from outside the room get amplified rather than spoken from offstage. It sounds like the commentary at a baseball game, and it detracts from the otherwise realistic period feeling.

Under Carey Perloff's clean direction, Congdon's adaptation of Gorky's indictment of sloth and greed is bitingly funny. This version also provides an interesting feminist view of the emotionally complex relationship between the women. Where the script becomes questionable is in its parody of the sons, who are incessantly mocked for their physical shortcomings. So one-sided is the depiction of these characters that it's impossible ever to feel sorry for them.

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