A man's outlook on life is changed when he sees Anton Chekhov's The Three Sisters, but his story is too long and too late.
A large part of a theatre critic’s job is to encourage others—especially those who wouldn’t ordinarily seek out theatrical experiences—to go out and see artistic events and performances. The benefit of going to the theatre, we often imply, is that the viewer’s worldview will be changed, heightened, or broadened in some way. Michel Nadeau’s And Slowly Beauty…, an original production from Quebec City’s Théâtre Niveau Parking (in an English translation by Maureen Labonté), on now at Tarragon Theatre, tells exactly that story.
Mr. Mann (Dennis Fitzgerald) is a man in his late forties. He has two college-aged kids, a realtor wife, a home that’s finally just the way he likes it, and a steady job at a government agency that allows him to work with the homeless. The sudden illness of a coworker coincides with Mann winning theatre tickets to a performance of Anton Chekhov’s The Three Sisters. “I never win anything,” he moans. He goes alone, while his family is off doing other things.
Mann is profoundly changed by the play, which famously ponders the meaning and monotony of life. He pores over the script and revisits the play several times. He learns how to appreciate life. In theory, this is a beautiful thing—and some of his scenes later in the play, featuring his wife, daughter, and barista friend (Caroline Gillis, Celine Stubel, and Mary-Colin Chisholm respectively, all of whom also recur as the three sisters) are beautiful to see—but this overly sentimental play ends up becoming little more than a cheesy onstage portrayal of a rich white man’s midlife crisis.
The first problem with the world today, according to Mann? People work too much, and it’s destroying their health. He visits his 30-something coworker Sylvain in the hospital (spoiler: he’s not long for this world). Afterward, Mann laments the young family (very sad) and expensive cottage (not so sad) Sylvain will leave behind. Mann is also distressed over aspects of his own life: for instance, the fact that he started his job and had a family immediately after university, leaving no time for travel, adventure, or learning. Well he can sure rest easy now, since the possibility of working in one job for an entire career in today’s economy has all but evaporated, as many news articles will confirm. Sure, work is stressful. And yeah, we all probably do it too much. But you know what’s not stressful? Having a pension, benefits, and a guaranteed income. A young book store clerk (Shawn Ahmed) points out the Bourgeois tendencies of Chekhov’s own work (tendencies And Slowly Beauty… shares), but Mann purposely and blatantly ignores his comments. We aren’t surprised.
Mr. Mann yearns to be anyone he’s not. He’s envious of a group of bohemians discussing art projects and getting into passionate fights in a cafe, and also some young actors whooping and drinking as they plan to take a show to a festival in France. He even casts a wistful eye upon a beautiful friendship between two homeless people. What glorious lives they all must lead! Never does the play acknowledge the countless artists barely scraping by, or the incomprehensible adversities that a city’s homeless population faces. Mann encourages his directionless son to travel to South America to go build, uh…something with bricks, probably, because that’s something youth should do. Mann’s view of young people, and by extension the play’s portrayal of them, is so bafflingly one-sided, it breaks your heart.
With a run time of over two hours and no intermission, And Slowly Beauty… indeed moves slowly. It features an intricate and quite stunning set of white panes, glass, and mirrors by John Ferguson, and director Michael Shamata keeps a steady reign on the sprawling script. Even so, this is a play about relishing every moment that runs the risk of making a segment of its audience feel cheated out of two hours.
This review originally stated that the play was translated by Nicolas Billon, when in fact the translation was done by Maureen Labonté.