In A PORCH AT THE EDGE OF THE WORLD, Karp Lykov and his grown children encounter their first outsiders aside from bears and dogs in fifty years.
Yerofei (Adam Rzepka) and Galina (Jennifer Huttenberger) are modern Russian scientists who accidentally come across the Lykovs’ cabin on a research trip. Yerofei falls in love with the young, energetic Agafia Lykov (Kate Black-Regan) and makes a series of decisions which result in tragedy.
The Lykovs are based on a real family, members of the uberconservative Russian Orthodox Christian sect of “Old Believers,” which was discovered deep in the uninhabitable zones of the Russian taiga in 1978, in self-exile from “the world.”
In a masterfully executed early scene, we see the complex interactions which undergird the fraying Lykov family unit. The five remaining Lykovs hunch around a tiny table in their cramped cabin attempting to get down to their meal, but unable to for all of the fighting.
Karp (Lee Pucklis) is a stiff-muscled, aging patriarch. Pucklis tempers the knee-jerk domineering spiritualism of the man with a soft spaciness, which helps the man separate himself from the practical repercussions of his actions. When Karp orders his sons Savin (Chris Davis) and Dmitry (Andrew Carroll) to go to “the world,” in order to make room for the others to live, Savin, seemingly out of spite, “loses time.”
Savin, through his understanding of the the bible, and Agafia’s sensitivity to her natural surroundings, is able to announce down to the minute what day and time it is. When Savin loses time, and then Agafia, the family is thrown into genuine panic. Natalia, throwing herself bodily into the corner, ascribes the “sin” of losing time to Agafia, who is now on her knees, searching wildly through the space above her own head for “time”; Karp is frantically crossing himself; meanwhile, Dmitry sits at the table trying to calm everyone down.
The scene is rich with subtle inference. We learn through observation the long history of this family: the gentle tyranny of a loving father and his seemingly arbitrary, self-wrought theories of “sin”; the distaste of Natalia (Jennifer Huttenberger) for Agafia; the exhaustion which complicates Dmitry’s innate optimism. We can only guess at what each person really thinks of “the world,” the phrase they use to describe what exists outside their taiga refuge, which most of them have never seen.
But the play runs into trouble when it deals with the other world. Galina (Jennifer Huttenberger) and Yerofei (Adam Rzepka), the Russian scientists / outsiders to the Lykov family, are not explored with nearly the interest that the Lykovs are, and come off as stock. Rzepka’s performance is puzzling—the character seems to be written, from the start, as an awkward social failure. Still suffering from the loss of his wife, he falls for businesslike, modern Galina as easily as he falls for young Agafia; when Galina puts up a fight he retracts into self-pity. But neither the actor nor the writer have found the heart of this man, who ends up driving most of the plot.
In the hands of stock characters, what should be an interesting and gritty story—romantically helpless adult male “in love” with ultimate ingénue seeks to “rescue” her—turns heavy-handed and moralistic.
The pleasure of this production comes from watching Black-Regan and the other Lykovs. Each has found deep, unselfconscious physical presence of religion within their own bodies. For them, as Galina points out to Yerofei, religion isn’t theoretical. It’s their whole world. Religion is present in everything, and sin in almost everything. Performing the sign of the cross is a full-body act. Savin seems to feel a pulse through his whole body when the fingers change their direction, while for Dmitry, maybe the most rational and worldly Lykov, it is a more fluid action. Whenever Agafia begins to discuss religion, her arms are fully engaged; each has the full-body presence of a preacher. These characters are relatable, but the performers don’t let us forget just how separate their world is from ours.
Black-Regan plays Agafia with incredible energy. The innocence and optimism of this young believer on the edge of survival is almost unbelievable, but Black-Regan never pauses, speaking with her whole body and charging through long, richly composed speeches, not giving us a moment to stop believing her. The charm she brings to the role with wide eyes and massive smile draw us moment-to-moment after her through the piece.
[Luna Theater, 620 S. 8th St.] November 10-14, 2015; transmissionstheatre.weebly.com.