Summer dreams, ripped at the seams

IBy Daniel Phan
idle hands are the devil’s playground!” This aphorism mirrors the message the cast and crew of “Summerfolk” relay to their audience. The University, partnered with the Guthrie Theatre, offers a Bachelor of Fine Arts Actor Training Program. Its junior class presents “Summerfolk,” Maxim Gorky’s story about a group of Russia’s elite who idle during the summer months. However, the vacation turns out to be anything but idle. The Summerfolk are living during the chaotic times before the Russian revolution but find themselves helpless to do anything except bicker with one another about changing society and argue about the meaning of life.

This four-act play delves into the issues of gender roles, sex, adultery, jealousy, philosophy, politics and love. Although this play takes place at the turn of the last century, the examination of these themes still holds weight today. Director Kenneth Mitchell’s interpretation makes difficult ideas like these easily digestible. His talented group of actors makes the three-hour show compelling with their excellent timing and on-stage chemistry.

What is compelling about Gorky’s writing is that each character has a differing personal struggle, yet he is able to connect them to form a general crisis for the entire Summerfolk. The undertone of animosity toward every other character is brilliantly played by Carena Crowell, whose character (Marya Lvovna) evokes fear in the other female characters and some of the men. Crowell’s focus, connection and stage attitude induces one’s recollection of someone in his or her own life who once had emotional power over him or her. The role of Varvara Mikhailovna (played by Lindsey Obrzut) anchors all of the characters’ neurotic and sometimes disturbing behavior. Obrzut’s interpretation of her character’s lack of passion for trivial issues aids the audience’s understanding of the internal struggles of each character.

The characters of “Summerfolk” generally have nothing to do all day but recite poetry, discuss what should be done politically in their country, contemplate the meaning of life and form a trite dialogue. Each character has his or her own “moment of glory” either by reciting a poem or standing on his or her political or philosophical soapbox. It seems this is done only so they will have the chance to insincerely compliment each other. The play’s resolution comes when they all realize their whole summer has been wasted by their constant backbiting and their inability to “walk the walk” they have been preaching about.

What makes this show remarkable is that every actor has formed his or her character to establish a relationship with the audience. This difficult acting tool is best illustrated by Lindsey Obrzut. Her strong-willed Varvara grows throughout the play and then suddenly succumbs to her own strife. Ultimately, “Summerfolk” parallels the same issues Americans deal with in the early 21st century and provides a unique glimpse into each theatergoer’s own life.

“Summerfolk” plays through Saturday at the Rarig Center, (612) 624-2345