The first two scenes of Chicago Actors Ensemble's The Sea Gull, Chekhov's portrayal of dysfunctional families and unrequited love, seem to indicate that it's going to plod wearily along toward its tragic conclusion. But thanks to some solid and mature acting by most of the cast, it actually becomes entertaining--and just engrossing enough to illustrate why the play has been deemed a classic.
The Sea Gull is an icon of naturalistic drama, rich in subtlety and irony, written by the man who declared, "It is necessary that onstage everything should be as complex and as simple as in life." In a Chekhov script a comment on the weather by one person can lead another to burst into tears. This makes The Sea Gull great theater. It also makes it damn difficult to do well.
As simple conversations are played out at two homes on the shore of an idyllic lake, the lives of the play's younger characters take unexpectedly tragic turns. Ultimately Nina and Konstantin, two innocent youths eager to write for and star in the theater, are destroyed by their own naivete and the selfishness of their famous elders. Other young people, such as the painfully serious Masha and her silly suitor Medvedenko, make decisions that lead to less dramatic but equally destructive fates.
Contrasted with them is the older generation, a group of people who have the hard edge of those who've already accepted their fate yet cling tenaciously to their artistic ambitions and selfish desires. Though they understand life's complexities better, they do nothing to ease the emotional anxieties of the younger generation.
At times Chicago Actors Ensemble's production, directed by Rick Helweg, seems a bit too stiff. His staging of the group scenes is particularly stilted, and his set design seems to impede rather than help the actors' natural movement. But this play is well cast, and strong acting helps mask these difficulties.
The Sea Gull is the kind of play that highlights the talents of good actors and the shortcomings of lesser ones. In this production Roberta Rudolph shines as Nina, bringing out the complexity of her ambition and the silliness of her youth. But David Thibodeaux as her former soul mate and lover Konstantin doesn't delve deeply enough into his character's intricacies, and his conversations seem forced and unnatural.
Kathleen McKeever sometimes seems ill at ease as Arkandina, a famous actress and Konstantin's self-centered mother; Edmund Wyson delivers a strong performance as Trigorin, a famous writer and Arkandina's lover. Hilary MacAustin is a delight as Masha, and Edward Pinkowski handles the difficult role of Medvedenko quite well. The supporting cast (Maria Cozzi, John Dunleavy, Jeff Strong, and Bill Griffin) consistently give strong performances. Without their contribution this production would fail.
Brian Gary Kirst plays with a lot of bruised emotions in his new verse play, Jumping at 65 M.P.H., in which a young writer, Emily Ann, confronts the childhood pain dumped on her by her abusive father and clingy mother. As with Kirst's earlier play Slumber Party in a Dangerous Land, many of these emotions may be his own.
At times Emily Ann's struggle feels like a poetic psychotherapy session: "It has never been easy for me to rip away, to expose things, to show," she says in the opening monologue. But expose she does, exploring the tender underbelly of her family in a manner that's sometimes self-indulgent and often painfully raw.
The play cuts back and forth between vignettes from her childhood and scenes in which she attempts to come to grips with the pain. At times it feels like an internal monologue or journal entry. Conversations between characters are very stylized, and certain images, such as red blood on snow, are repeated. It's not an easy script to perform, but Katie Walsh as Emily Ann handles Kirst's verse with considerable finesse; Michele Zanko as Emily Ann's sister Ursula and Andrea Stark and Kelly S. Jones as her parents perform their scenes a little less adroitly.
Kirst knows how to create powerful moments onstage, but Jumping at 65 M.P.H. lacks dramatic structure. He seems enamored with his writing, unable to look at it objectively; genuinely poignant images are interspersed with self-indulgent, mushy ones. This production feels almost too personal and private to be performed publicly. That's both its weakness and its strength.
THE SEA GULL
Chicago Actors Ensemble
JUMPING AT 65 M.P.H.
at the Heartland Cafe Studio Theatre