by Lynn on March 25, 2021

in The Passionate Playgoer

Improvised and performed by Stewart Arnott and Susan Coyne

Conceived and directed by Rena Polley

Produced by The Chekhov Collective.

The Chekhov Collective is a group of theatre creators devoted to the teaching method of Michael Chekhov and to the works of the great Russian writer, Anton Chekhov. The collective usually produces a live production a year but of course that’s not possible this year. So Rena Polley, the founder of the collective conceived of this wonderful gem of a show that is improvised and performed digitally by Stewart Arnott and Susan Coyne, in their separate homes, adhering to COVID safety precautions.  

To say that it is Chekhovian, goes without saying, even though I just said it. By that I mean full of subtle, delicate touches of the mundanity of life, humour, sometimes absurdist humour and love.

The premise is simple enough: in the space of 10 scenes that take place over several weeks we see “how a couple grapple with different ways of responding to the pandemic.” (according to the blurb of the show.)  Neil and Brenda are the married couple. By all accounts they are happy and live well. The fridge and cupboards are full.  They live in a house full of books. In Neil’s office there is even a library ladder to get up to the top shelf. That impressed me no end. Brian is a serious book lover.

But something is up with Neil. He brings armfuls of folded clothes into his office. Then writes a note that he tapes to the outside of his office door and quickly closes it when he hears Brenda coming home, calling out to him.

The second scene is “A few minutes later.” And even though Neil and Brenda are in the same house they are communicating through their separate computers by Zoom. She is in the book- filled living-room, looking into her computer screen and asks gently of Neil, “Are you mad at me? Neil seems stricken with remorse at this and assures her he is not.

The problem is that Neil is anxious about the pandemic and he thinks that Brenda can bring the virus into the house. She is the one who goes out into the world, as he says. He’s terrified of getting sick.  She is always careful and adheres to the safety guidelines, but Neil is so paranoid he feels she can inadvertently bring it into the house so he decides not to leave his office.

She leaves his meals outside the office door. When he’s finished he puts the empty plates outside the door and Brenda comes and takes them away. She knows this is irrational but she is kind and patient. Early in the play she just wants to talk face to face to clear this up and he’s adamant that that can’t happen. That he needs to be alone. She tries to reason with him. She asks what will he do all day long? He says that he’s always wanted to get the books in order. This will be a great opportunity. She is supportive and encouraging. He then says, “no promises.”

Matters progress. From his office window Neil sees the neighbour preparing to build a shed with tools Neil loaned him that were never returned.  So Neil is angry at the noise from all the banging and sawing. He frets about the tools. He’s agitated about the noise. He is impatient with Brenda when she plans to go for a walk. And we see her impatience too after a few weeks.

Then Neil buys a cello for himself without telling Brenda; it’s delivered to the house; and he expects her to bring it to him. The negotiations between them have an edge. His practicing of the cello is driving her crazy and he is oblivious.

This is not a steady spiral downward for the two. There is a wonderful scene where they are celebrating something important. Both got dressed up.  Both have their own drinks and nibblies. She dances to the Ramones in the living room and he loves watching her on his computer in his office. At one point in that evening, they are sitting on the floor on either side of his office door, with their backs to the door. Both look happy and peaceful. Brenda slowly raises her hand towards the door handle to turn it and go into his room for the first time in a long time. Neil gently says he’s tired.  The shorthand between the two is clear but not cruel. She lowers her arm but she has a look of wistfulness rather than being devastated.

As a Zoom event I think this is one of the best digital theatrical experiences that I’ve seen in a long time.  Because the characters are communicating by Zoom it also works for the audience who are watching it digitally. The characters are interacting via their screens and the audience doesn’t think it’s artificial.

And in its own way From A Distance is beautifully Chekhovian. In Chekhov’s plays characters are often adults acting childishly, petulantly and selfishly, but with a certain sweetness. Neil is like that. He’s irrationally anxious; selfish in trying to hide in his office and expecting Brenda to cater to him. She on the other hand is patient and kind. She waits for him to come to his senses.

It certainly helps that you have two actors as gifted as Stewart Arnott as Neil and Susan Coyne as Brenda. Arnott has such charm as Neil almost a tenderness when he tries not to hurt Brenda at the beginning.  And even at Neil’s most irritating moments, Arnott does not make Neil cruel, just immature.

Susan Coyne shows Brenda’s almost endless patience and open heart. She constantly reaches out to him because she knows this is so unlike him. These people love each other, but she has to cope with much more than he does and she does it with quiet grace.  When she does lose her patience it’s as an adult with a child. I love that subtle difference.

And Rena Polley’s direction is terrific. It’s full of the most subtle detail. There are pauses, sighs and moments of quiet emotion. And she even gets us to look closely at the books. When Neil says he wants to get the books in order, we look to see if he did. As I peered at one shelf I noted that the library ladder did not move from the beginning to the end of the play, but the positioning of the books did. Perhaps it was a group decision here, but I credit Rena Polley for that wonderful detail. I love it when a director makes the audience look harder and feel smarter when they find a clue.  And it ends with a sly Chekhovian twist that is stunning. I loved this production of From A Distance. I hope everybody checks it out.

From A Distance plays digitally on The Chekhov Collective’s website at:

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