Most theater directors keep a short list of their favorite playwrights.
Kent Stephens’ list is three deep: William Shakespeare, Tennessee Williams and Anton Chekhov.
The first two are obvious. Chekhov, less so. Stephens has long-admired the Russian playwright, who ranks second only to Tolstoy in the Russian literary hierarchy, but whose profile in North America remains less defined.
“I think there is some distance with Chekhov from American audiences, and I think part of that is because some translations sound like spontaneous translations from the U.N.,” said Stephens, founder and director of Stage Force in Kittery.
He hopes to address some of that linguistic clunkiness with “Uncle Vanya in Maine,” an adaptation of the Chekhov classic “Uncle Vayna” that relocates the play from Russia to Maine and populates it with familiar-sounding Mainers.
The play opens Friday at the Star Theatre at the Kittery Community Center on Rogers Road.
“For this translation, we got rid of some of the cultural barriers and translated it to America of the same period, and took advantage of what the American language was doing at the time,” said Stephens.
Chekhov lived only 44 years, dying in 1904 from tuberculosis. His best-known play is “The Cherry Orchard.” “Uncle Vanya” debuted in Moscow in 1899.
The play tells of a visit of a college professor and his young wife to his country estate. The estate is managed by Vanya, the brother of the professor’s first wife, now deceased. During the course of events, the professor announces his intention to sell the estate, bringing crises and unrest to his rural kin.
Stephens sets “Uncle Vanya in Maine” along the Androscoggin River. The characters in the Stage Force production look and sound familiar. They are named Uncle John-John and his niece Sunny, who run the estate. The professor, Alexander St. Brockman, comes up from Harvard with his trophy wife, Helena.
Emotions boil over as John-John falls hard for Helena and Sunny for the local doctor, named Astroff, who would much prefer sharing intimacies with Helena. All those emotions are flushed aside when the old man announces he is selling the Androscoggin estate so he and Helena can buy a seaside home on Mount Desert Island.
The Stephens translation and Chekhov original are much the same plays, set in the same time period, but instead of the Russian cultural trappings that define the Chekhov original, the Stage Force production is full of American-centric idioms.
“We just got rid of the cultural barriers that seem to trip up American audiences and set it in America of the same period, and we took advantage of what language in America was doing at that time,” said Stephens. “We tried to capture what I know is the musical and highly expressive Russian language of the original, which in translations get leeched out. Everywhere I could, I made this translation more muscular and decidedly more Western. I saw Down East Mainers in these characters.”
Stephens translated this play line by line. He does not speak Russian, but befriended a writer from the Ukraine at a party in New York. “I was telling him about this idea, and he was very excited.”
The cast includes Brent Askari, Andy Fling, Mary Lou Bagley, Christine Penney, Rebecca Rudolf, Gordon Carlisle, Carol Davenport and Stephens.
He hopes people who see this play “are plunged into a life on a farm estate in Maine on a sweltering summer day. These are people we recognize, people that we know.”
There’s an environmental aspect to this story, as well. These characters not only work the land, but care about the land and see themselves as stewards. They were environmentalists, who practiced an early form of what we now know as sustainability.
During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Androscoggin River was polluted by paper mills. It wasn’t until Maine Sen. Edward Muskie helped craft the Clean Water Act in 1972 that the river began returning to a healthier state.
Through this play, Stephens plans to tie those elements together. Stage Force has partnered with the Kittery Land Trust, which will co-host a panel discussion after the matinee performance on Sunday.
Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or:[email protected]Twitter: pphbkeyes