Nimbus Theatre isn't going to give you A Christmas Carol, It's a Wonderful Life, or any other heartwarming treacle for the holiday season. Instead, the company delves deep into a driving and fully engaging adaptation of The Lower Depths.
Written by Maxim Gorky at the turn of the 20th century, the original play centers on the underbelly of Russian society — people who had fallen through the cracks and were scrambling to make some kind of existence out of the scraps they could find.
Nimbus's Josh Cragun adapts the story, moving the action to Great Depression-era America. That's not unusual for The Lower Depths, which has been moved to locations around the world in a number of adaptations. Gorky connected with an essential piece of the human condition.
THE LOWER DEPTHS Nimbus Theatre 1517 Central Ave. NE, Minneapolis Through Dec. 22; 612-548-1380
The characters share a cramped basement in an unnamed city. Reduced to nearly nothing, they philosophize about their plight, their lives, and what may eventually pick them up out of the depths.
It's a well staged and acted piece concerned as much with the day-to-day rhythms of life in the basement as any kind of overarching plot. Particularly engrossing are the scenes dedicated to thief Karl (Andrew Sass) and his relationship with the two sisters who live in the home above and watch over their quasi-legal tenement.
We don't actually get to see that upstairs part of the house, or any signs of the outside world apart from the occasional actor re-entering the set, shivering from the cold. The play stays in the basement throughout, with only occasional sounds from the home's upstairs indicating that the rest of the world exists at all. As the action plays out on Zach Morgan's excellent set, we get to focus on the bevy of characters — where they have been and where they hope to be in the future.
While the bulk of the plot falls to Karl and the domestic situation above, all of the characters in the large cast have compelling stories to tell. Some of them fell on hard times after the stock market crash (the Duchess); others suffer from addiction (the Actor, who has let drink "poison his organism"). Still others are recent immigrants or former convicts suffering all the attendant consequences of those particular stations in life.
Into all of this comes Luka (Art Peden), a traveler with a strong philosophical bent who calmly observes and comments on the chaos around him. His keen observations help to shine a light on the desperation felt by all of the characters, even by more successful inhabitants like Karl.
Peden brings a lot of gravity to his performance, but it is Sass who commands the stage. There is a constant sense of anger and danger from the character, which bends all of the action around him. The play flags in the last quarter, after his character has left the stage.
The last scene nevertheless brings all of the confused humanity of the production to life. These people may be wearing rags and cast-offs (nicely constructed by Barb Portinga), but they are still finding comfort and a touch of hope in each other's company.