‘Life Sucks’ playwright has Wisconsin connections

March 26, 2019

For not growing up or going to college here, playwright Aaron Posner has a lot of Wisconsin connections. And Forward Theater Company is making sure its production of one of Posner’s acclaimed plays will, too.

“Life Sucks,” a play “sort of adapted from ‘Uncle Vanya’ by Anton Chekhov,” opens this week in the Overture Center’s Playhouse. Posner’s version puts Vanya and a collection of characters in a weekend country house, pondering life’s mundanities in a way that earned a 2016 production of the play in Chicago four stars from the city’s major critics.

“There just aren’t many comedies being written anymore. And especially comedies with substance. So when they come along, we want to do them,” said Forward artistic director Jennifer Uphoff Gray, who’s directing “Life Sucks.”

“This is just a completely unique play,” she said. “I’ve never done a piece exactly like it, so that’s fun. It was a chance to put a cast of some of my all-time favorite performers in a room together. This just felt like a really wonderful way to close out our 10th anniversary season — to have this fun-, and love- and compassion-filled play.”

The country house in Forward’s production is set in Wisconsin’s own Door County — down to a cherry tree feature on the sparse set (the cherry tree was a must, said Gray, given Door County’s beloved fruit export and another Chekhov masterpiece, “The Cherry Tree.”)

But if you never read Chekhov in world literature class, it doesn’t matter. Though inspired by a play written in the late 1890s, “Life Sucks” is set in the here and now.

“It’s my language; it’s all sort of my perspective,” Posner explained in a recent phone interview. “Even though I’m playing on Chekhov’s playground, it is very personal to me. I’m writing things I know, things I understand.”

“You don’t need to know a single thing about Chekhov,” Gray said. “You can walk in knowing absolutely nothing.”

‘Unbelievable group’

“Life Sucks” features a cast-of well-known Wisconsin names: Bill Bolz as Vanya; Reese Madigan as Dr. Aster; Brian Mani as the Professor; Marcella Kearns as Pickles; Sarah Day as Babs; Elyse Edelman as Sonia; and Rana Roman as Ella.

Posner has worked with many of them before, both at Milwaukee Repertory Theater and at American Players Theatre in Spring Green, where he frequently directs (including last year’s“Heartbreak House”).

“APT has this unbelievable group of some of the best actors I’ve ever worked with in the country,” Posner said. Many times he’s recruited APT actors to do shows for other theaters “because they’re just first rate.”

Posner was actually born in Madison when his father was a psychology professor at UW-Madison. But his family moved to Eugene, Oregon, when he was only 2 years old. Now in his 50s, he lives in the Washington, D.C., area with his wife and daughter.

And yet, “As it turned out, I’ve spent as much time working in Wisconsin as almost anywhere in the country — other than home — which is nice, because I enjoy it there very, very much,” he said.

Posner’s longtime friendship with Mark Clements, Milwaukee Rep’s artistic director, led him to direct productions there of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “A Christmas Carol,” and his own play, “My Name is Asher Lev.”

All the while, he was hearing about “this place called APT and what a great place it was,” he said.

“Several designers I’ve worked with had done shows there. So I kept hearing about it, and at some point I met (APT artistic director) Brenda DeVita, and it just seemed like my kind of place.” When he went to visit the theater set in rural Spring Green, an hour west of Madison, “I just completely fell in love with everything about it.”

“I actually ended up writing an article for ‘American Theater’ magazine about what an unsung gem APT is,” Posner said. “I think it’s such an unbelievable, and not terribly well known, theater, given the quality of the work they do.”

‘Love-hate respect’

He knows three of the cast members of Forward’s “Life Sucks” because he’s personally directed them before – Day and Mani at APT, and Edelman in Milwaukee, he said.

Posner’s long resume of adaptions include Chekhov-inspired “No Sisters” and “Stupid __ Bird,” (recently produced by UW-Madison’s University Theatre), but he doesn’t call his relationship with the Russian playwright “love.”

“I started an ‘intense relationship’ with Chekhov, because it is sort of a love-hate respect,” he explained.

“It’s complicated, because Chekhov is so important to the theater. I went to Northwestern (University) in Evanston, Illinois, where Chekhov really sits at the center of the theater program, and there is a true reverence, an absolute reverence for Chekhov.

“I can be bit of a contrarian,” he said. “So that reverence set off in me an equal and opposite irreverence, perhaps.

“But Chekhov influenced all of world theater and of storytelling performance forever,” he said. “All of television, all of movies, all of realistic drama, all really in one way or another stems back to Chekhov. So (he was) an incredibly important and powerful figure in the world of storytelling through performance — stage, screen, or however else.”

“What he was doing 100 years ago was really radical,” Posner said. “But then, as so many things, once he had done that radical thing, so many people copied it, and then going back to find what made that radical was a really hard thing to do.

“Hence you ended up with a lot of bad productions of Chekhov — many, many, many terrible productions of Chekhov,” he said. “And of course some good ones, too, (such as) at APT, which has done some Chekhov as good as I’ve ever seen it done.”

Posner will be back in Madison Saturday to give a 1 p.m. free, public talk at the Overture Center about his career as a writer and director. His latest project, however, is not about pulling more Chekhov into the modern world. It’s “JQA,” a play about John Quincy Adams that Posner wrote and directed at Arena Stage theater in Washington, D.C., and that the playwright describes as “an attempt to look at today through the lens of yesterday.”

[Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct that Rana Roman is pictured during the play rehearsal.]