Red Barn Theater could rest on its laurels for its 40th anniversary season and deliver safe, classic content. Fortunately for Key West, Red Barn artistic director Joy Hawkins knows how dull that would be. Instead, the theater continues to live up to its reputation for finding contemporary creative works that, until recently, could only be seen in New York. The latest offering, “Life Sucks,” written by Aaron Posner and based on a Chekhov classic, is directed by Hawkins and features seven characters mining their daily tribulations and stumblings for deeper meaning.
Anton Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” originally premiered in Moscow in 1899. The play portrays an aging professor who visits his family’s estate with his much younger wife in tow. The professor’s brother-in-law — the namesake Vanya — and his wife have long managed the estate and greet the returning family members with open arms, but with a whiff of trepidation and self-preservation. Each is fighting internal battles, something Chekhov uses deftly to comment on eternal conflicts of love, longing, lust and malcontent.
Posner’s spin on “Uncle Vanya” comes in the form of “Life Sucks.” The basic bones remain. Uncle Vanya is still Uncle Vanya, and the seven characters grapple with the same existential crises that plagued the players over 100 years ago. The fact that these moral and emotional quandaries have endured a century can be seen either as depressing or as a timeless meditation on what it means to be human. I choose to go with the latter.
What’s changed is the tone. Posner’s play possesses the snappy banter found on modern stages and periodically breaks the fourth wall with humorous side commentary or questions for the audience. For the scripted content, though, the play carries, but doesn’t quite crackle. “Life Sucks” opened to rave reviews from The New York Times and the like, and was nominated for a Drama Desk Award in 2019. But there are moments of dialogue that sound a bit like a middle-aged mother (like, *ahem* me) using overly youthful slang.
The actors, however, deliver the lines with a wink and a nod, playing the tune perfectly. Karl Stahl is perfect as The Professor — he holds court bellowing in full professorial, pompous glory. George diBraud quietly carries the show as voice-of-reason Babs, the glue holding this soul-searching family together. David Black balances the misguided anxiety and dark comic relief of Uncle Vanya, while Jessica Miano Kruel buoys youthful heartsick angst with humor in the role of Sonia. Aaron R. Duclos makes his Red Barn debut as Dr. Aster, a man constantly competing against himself, and somehow losing. His performance is a strong mix of pathos and humor. Susannah Wells, as Ella, The Professor’s wife, keeps the mood light with a sexy effervescence, in spite of her character’s own challenges in deflecting unwanted male attention. Caroline Taylor bounds onto the stage as Pickles, the play’s comic ringer. She plays her moments in attuned quirkiness, finding the right flavors of off-beat humor and unexplored grief. Overall, the ensemble is strong and has a visibly good time with the material.
There is melancholy in the material, but the play is ultimately more comedy than tragedy. After all, we’re all in this together as the emotional stakes presented onstage are ageless and universal. This is where the play begs for a closer that “Life” indeed does not “Suck.” I’m not falling for that, but I will say that Posner’s play, as presented by the team at Red Barn, illustrates the classic ups and downs of life and love with a generous spirit.
Now through Feb. 8
Tickets: redbarntheatre.com or 305-296-9911