I have a gaping hole in my reading and theatergoing experience when it comes to Russian writers. Maybe it’s the long names that I struggle to keep track of on the page. Perhaps it’s the rarity of the plays’ productions in these parts.
Whatever the case, it’s been about twenty years since I’ve seen Chekhov’s three sisters not go to Moscow and even longer since I’ve lost myself in a Russian novel.
And so, when I took my seat at the Goodman Theatre’s production of “The Seagull” in Chicago, I did so not as someone who could compare Chekhov’s first play to past productions of it. In fact, apart from a general idea that things ended badly, I had no idea who the characters were and what was going to happen to them. Hardcore theatergoers may smirk, but the sad reality is that it’s possible to have a lifetime of theatergoing and never encounter many acknowledged masterpieces.
Truth is, though, I’m glad I waited.
Going in ignorant but open to “The Seagull” allowed this very accessible drama to open itself up to me detail by detail. And those detailed moments were played so richly, so truthfully that I fell in love with just about every character in the first fifteen minutes and had my heart ache for them over the next two and a half hours.
A week later, I’m still trying to remember a stronger company of actors that I’ve seen make every theatrical moment a vital one. The one I can come up with: “You Never Can Tell” at New York’s Circle in the Square back in 1987 with a powerhouse company including John Cullum, Uta Hagen, Victor Garber and Philip Bosco.
Allow me to praise a few members of this remarkable company of some of Chicago’s finest:
-- Francis Guinan, from the Broadway company of “August: Osage County,” found a great balance of sadness and charm as Sorin, a man who can’t see his own best qualities and, instead, focuses on the things he didn’t do and the man he didn’t become.
--As Arkadina, an actress trying desperately to cling to her youth, Mary Beth Fisher (seen in the IRT’s “The Heavens are Hung in Black”) was heartbreaking when she easily could have been simply shrewish. The moment in the second act confrontation when a hopeful encounter with her troubled son tips and slides rapidly downhill left me breathless.
--Kelly O’Sullivan made an immediate impression early on as Masha, who goes from appealingly depressive and love struck in the first act to bitter in the second. The loss of her spirit proves one of the saddest elements of the play.
--Steve Pickering, who I had the pleasure of seeing in the Goodman’s “Long Day’s Journey into Night”, and Scott Jaeckhas, who some may remember from the IRT’s “Dinner with Friends,” have smaller roles here, but both were so in the moment, even when not the focus of attention, that I found myself totally convinced that their lives were as real as those of the main characters.
I could go on and on.
Of course, these fine actors have a great play to work with. And in this translation, Chekhov plays as contemporary as…no, strike that. Better to say that Chekhov plays as universal as any writer before or after him. There are more truths about what it’s like to be a human being in “The Seagull” than there are in anything else I’ve seen on stage. Yet it’s never easy. Never cheap. Never less than truth to its characters.
This is why I go to the theater.
“The Seagull runs through Nov. 21. I strongly encourage you to go—and to e-mail me if you do because I may just split the gas and parking with you and go see it again.
Full disclosure: A friend was involved in this production, which is why I went to see it in the first place. Long time readers will know, though, that I have seen many shows that friends have worked on that I’ve been less-than enthusiastic about. And, after telling everyone I ran into that they must see this production if they have a chance, I felt it unfair not to share my enthusiasm for it with you.