A local production will transplant themes from Russian playwright Anton Chekhov's classic "Three Sisters" from Russia to New Jersey, with doses of writer Deborah Zoe Laufer's own humor and pathos.
Director Rosie Seitz Ayers said Chekhov adaptations have been popular lately around the country, possibly because of the playwright's emphasis on subtext and mood.
"It is really about the tone and mood of what you're saying in between the lines," she said. Laufer stays true to that philosophy without directly adapting or translating the original or her 90-minute work.
Ayers, a local director and actor, is producing the work with her longtime partner, Teresa Waldorf, and a few of their collaborators.
The production is rooted in a staged reading of the play with Laufer at the Colony, the Montana Repertory Theatre's annual playwrights' gathering. Laufer has become a regular since one of the first Colony. Because of that tie, the Juilliard School graduate's work has had a presence in the Missoula theater scene through Rep productions of "End Days," a religious and 9/11-themed office, and "Leveling Up," a coming-of-age story about a drone pilot.
Ayers and Waldorf said Laufer's comedy is by turns genuine and truthful, toeing the line of cringe-inducing humor, a balance that gives either quality more strength.
"We live concurrently with that great sadness and levity, you know that exists only when you have the depths of sadness," Ayers said. "The deeper the capacity to experience sorrow and humanity, and the more you can experience the ability to laugh at yourself and to find the funny in the middle of the mundane."
"Joy and sorrow don't come alone," Waldorf said. "They always come in tandem."
"And if they come alone," Ayers said. "We just send them right out the door."
In Laufer's take on Chekhov's "Three Sisters," we meet three siblings, natives of Manhattan now living in Weehawken, New Jersey. We never hear why they moved, only that they dream of returning one day. As you'd expect in Chekhov, these three are the idle rich, which contributes to the paralysis that grips them.
"Everything boils down to fear," Waldorf said. The characters are gripped by "the fear of change, it's the fear of surprise, it's the fear of things happening and the fear of things not happening."
It happens that the Ayers and Waldorf, plus their collaborators, are naturally the right range of ages for the script, which begins when the youngest sister is 21 and ends when she's in her 70s.
Ayers is portraying Natasha, the sister-in-law who presses them to change. Salina Chatlain of the Montana Rep plays middle-sister Masha. Bridget Smith plays the youngest, Irina. And Waldorf plays Olga, the eldest.
Ayers and Waldorf are a long-running team, both in self-produced sketch comedy and now three evening-length productions. Either way, it's theater-on-budget with simple do-it-yourself props, sets and costumes.
This is their first production at the Roxy Theater — their old haunts at the Crystal Theatre are no longer available, since the owners are renovating for a brewery and restaurant.
Regardless of venue, they emphasize performance and strong scripts over high-end production values, which has garnered them a local following.
"I think if you were to ask what keeps us going and what keeps us together and why is this little team successful, in my mind it's because we all have the same work ethic," Waldorf said. "Which is: This damn well better be fun or we're not doing it."