Prepare to fall in love—with words, with writing, with creating, with art, with theatre, and with Anton Chekhov and Olga Knipper. This beautiful work is based on the 412 letters that the two wrote from their meeting in 1898 to his death in 1904, through their friendship, courtship, affair, and marriage. And go see it by this Friday–this is a short run.
This play . . .is exceptional. Go see it. You’ll fall gloriously in love.
He was the most celebrated playwright in Russia and elsewhere; she was Russia’s premier actress. They met when the fledgling theatre company she helped start decided to do a reading of ‘The Seagull,’ which had been panned by critics so badly that Chekhov had sworn to give up theatre. He didn’t, she rose to new heights playing his roles, they created a legend.
But this beautifully written story isn’t a fawning, uncritical look at the two of them. They were excruciatingly honest in their letters, revealing all the foibles and flaws and (sometimes) delightful quirks of their humanness, and so accepting and supportive they kept falling more incandescently deeper into love. As these letters make clear, they were stalwart together.
The play traces their story from their first meeting to the night he died, only six years later. Did you know she was the one who actually proposed? If you see this play, you’ll know. Did you also know that they made copious use of the latest technology of the time—the telegraph? Ditto seeing this play, knowing this.
Interwoven into the story is an intriguing picture of the world at the turn of the 20th century. The words evoke the interplay of horse carts and motor cars, railways and buses, lanterns and electric lights, the newness of water closets. You get a sense of the courage it took for Olga to take a lover because of the constraints on women’s lives at the time. The writing—directly from the letters and the words from Carol Rocamora—paint beautiful pictures to spark the imagination.
I have to confess I looked up Anton Chekhov after the show to refresh my memory of him and his works—and was absolutely taken aback by the uncanny physical resemblance that Richard Sheridan Willis bears to him. Whether or not he bears an emotional resemblance I don’t know, but Willis’ Chekhov was brilliant, warm, patient, exasperating, needy, independent—complex and challenging and mesmerizing.
And Rena Polley as Olga Knipper matched him in the breadth and depth of her performance. She can turn on a dime from needy coquette to a woman agonizing over her miscarriage. As an actress, Knipper was obviously skilled at letting people see what was expected, but as the letters show, she could and did face some heartbreaking truths and Polley’s stunningly vulnerable performance rings true.
And one of the beauties of this story is they had a chance—even if only six short years!—to face life together. They signed their letters, “I take your hand in mine. . .” and the simplicity and promise of that vow is breathtaking.
This play, directed by Dmitry Zhukovsky with a deep understanding of the spaces between the words that cemented so much, is exceptional. This is about a grown-up love that knew, on one level, it didn’t have much time, but took the leap anyway. This is a love for the ages. Go see it. You’ll fall gloriously in love.
Running Time: Ninety minutes with no intermission.
For More Information: “I Take Your Hand in Mine” runs only through December 13, 2019, at Taffety Punk at the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop, Washington, DC. For more information, click here.