by SOPHIE KERMAN
If you’re sick and tired of Christmas spirit, it might be time for a change of pace. Director Josh Cragun‘s adaptation of Maxim Gorky‘s The Lower Depths places you in the middle of a Great Depression basement-level tenement, peeling away all of the candy-coated materialism of the holiday season to reveal what happens to people when they have nowhere to go and barely enough money for rent and food.
The richly imagined atmosphere of the tenement begins with Zach Morgan‘s breathtaking set. All of the bunks, complete with the random debris of everyday life, sit precariously one on top of another, with faded sheets and blankets to create an illusion of privacy between them. The sheer volume of stuff arranged throughout the space – and the fact that each item seems realistically damaged and appropriate to Depression-era life – is in itself an accomplishment, but Morgan’s arrangement of each character’s living quarters also creates subtle hierarchies that, in fact, contribute to our understanding of the relationships on stage. Barb Portinga‘s artfully torn, patched, and soiled costumes complete the transformation of the Nimbus Theater into an utterly different time and space.
In The Lower Depths, poverty and joblessness dictate every one of the characters’ actions. There are no less than fifteen unique characters here – and this has been cut down from Gorky’s original script – but they all have their own sets of deeply held beliefs that govern how they respond to a relatively hopeless situation. What saves the play from feeling heavy or preachy is that each character struggles with a different central dilemma. Where the Duchess is grappling with the boredom of being poor, Karl Nilsen and Andrei Klestch embody the relative merits of stealing versus an honest (and much less lucrative) day’s work. Bub and the Actor have been facing the consequences of their alcohol abuse, while Chong Soon and Nellie deal with life as single women in extremely different ways. Upstairs, the landlord’s wife and her sister deal with a volatile mixture of jealousy and abuse.
Into this richly detailed sea of faces – all acted very well by the large ensemble – walks Luka. Whether a vagabond, a prophet, or an eccentric escaped convict, the character is clearly meant to illustrate the ethical and emotional stakes being played out on stage. Though Art Peden plays him with an expressive voice and a deep well of compassion, Luka’s lack of a back story stands out among his more fleshed-out companions. His character serves a more philosophical function than a dramatic one; at times, he sheds interesting light on a situation, while there are other moments when his Socratic dialogue slows down the pace of the play.
The Lower Depths is a bold choice, as Gorky’s script weaves its characters together in a way that illustrates the different sides of poverty with a degree of nuance that many audiences are unused to, particularly during a season of straightforward Christmas morality. But for those willing to step outside of the holiday bubble, the Nimbus’s artful production may lead you to look at economic inequalities in a new way that is both critical and compassionate – a fairly holiday-friendly result after all.
The Lower Depths, by Maxim Gorky, adapted by Josh Cragun. December 7-22, 2013 at the Nimbus Theater, 1517 Central Ave NE, Minneapolis, MN 55413. Tickets $10-15 at www.nimbustheatre.com or 612-548-1380.