Reprinted from yesterday's late editions
Though he never suceeded with his later plays, Maxim Gorki created in "The Lower Depths" one of the major documents of Russian literature, a work of theatrical, revolutionary and socialogical force.
Wednesday night, for a run to extend through May 8 Arena Stage came to Gorki uncommonly prepared, in its production of Slavic passions and remorseless endurance. While "The Lower Depths" may not be everyone's meat, no one involved with theater or contemporary politics will want to miss this rare opportunity to see the strong, influential drama done about as well as it likely to be presented outside the Moscow Art Theater.
One can imagine the jolt "The Lower Depths" caused in czarist days of 75 years ago when the Stanislavski-Danchenko theater presented this life-among-the-lowly amid settings from which the audience expected to catch lice.
The setting is a flophouse, its inhabitants the down-and-outers, the drifters, the drop-outs through drink, gambling or crime. Death, murder and suicide will strike the motley characters within a few months.
The closest one comes to this, in English, is in George Orwell's writings about the flophouses of 30 years later. Gorki's drama, an instant and little-censored shock in czarist days, in time would be put to propagandist uses by the Bolsheviks and, as Marc Solnim relates in his "Russian Theater," Gorki himself would approve the change of essences in Luka, the wanderer who attempts "to try to make people feel better."
The obvious plt concerns the longing of Vassilissa to have her husband, the owner of the flophouse, murdered. Because Vassily, her lover, prefers her sister, Vassilissa is willing to release Vassily if he will see to her husband's murder.
But the theme is more important, one which the American O'Neill would turn to time and again: Which is preferable , illusion or truth? This is the conflict between old Luka and the increasingly evident Satin.
Romanian director Liviu Ciulei and actor Robert Prosky provide a striking image for Luka, who looks rather like an icon of St. Peter, the fisherman who saved souls even though it may have meant pressing illusions on those who, logically, should have used up every one. It is an entirely sympathetic vision of traditional Christianity. Luka brings comfort.
Having endured the raw emotions of the self-styled Baron, a pimp; the dying Anna; the impatient landlord and the passionate irresolution of Vassily, Satin emerges from the role of observer to that of Luka's protagonist. The old man having gone, leaving the unfortunate with no prop for their illusions, Satin cries for truth. "To some, lies are crutches," he allows, "but the only freedom lies in truth." It remains a thrilling if muffled line for today's Russian theater.
Prosky, as noted, is a strking Luka, a mystical figure whom the actors who followed his creator, I. M. Moskvin, would turn into a ridiculous and cunning old man. Here there is innocence. And there is blue fire in the Satin of John Seitz, controlled, clear and burning. Gary Bayer has never been better than he is as Vassily and James Tolkan wisely makes the landlord less than a villian.
In the large cast there is an exceptional Arena bow, Roy Brocksmith as the youngish Baron. This actor, recently in Lincoln Center's "Threepenny Opera," recalls what one has read of the young Charles Laughton, a presence of physical weight and infinite balance. With the leisured assurance director Ciulei has encouraged in all his performers, Brocksmith handles that once proper gentleman descended to pimp with singular imagination. "In all my life," he whimpers, "I feel I've done nothing but change clothes."
Santo Loquasto's assignment for the setting could not have been easy, transferring the relatively specific Gorki instruction for picture stage to arena style. he resolves it with levels on stage floor and depths below, an evident compromise, but immensely aided by Marjorie Slaiman's costumes and Hugh Lester's lighting. The translation by Kitty Hunter-Blair and Jeremy Brooks sometimes smacks of modernity but has the virtue of expressive clarity.