Eric Till’s adaptation of Jovanka Bach’s play is set in 1905 Yalta, with playwright Anton Chekhov facing multiple challenges: his tuberculosis is getting worse (despite his protestations to the contrary), he is struggling to complete “The Cherry Orchard,” and his overly protective sister Maria is furious to discover that he has married Olga Knipper, an actress with the Moscow Art Theatre.
The tension between Anton and Maria fuels what is basically a two-person film (a few minor characters are basically walk-on roles and Olga is only represented as a soundtrack voice reading letters sent to Anton). Anton is aloof and dismissive to his sister’s concerns, while Maria’s attempts to ensure he stays in good health – to the point of getting rid of all of the lamp oil in their home so he cannot write into the middle of the night – are strident and often seem ridiculous.
Till manages to expand the production’s theatrical roots with imaginative direction across what is basically a one-set film, creating a chamber piece of fraught with tension and recrimination. Ron Bottitta captures the essence of Chekhov’s multiple conflicts, but Gillian Brashear’s performance as Maria is somewhat uneven – her line readings alternate between mechanical blurting and genuine emotional heft, but ultimately her Maria is a tragic figure unable to differentiate between self-pity and pride.
Within the realm of contemporary independent filmmaking, “Chekhov & Maria” is an unusual endeavor as a period piece with Russian literary roots. If it doesn’t always hit its mark, it nonetheless deserves merit for presenting a very different concept with skill and maturity.