Down on the farm, a harvest of pain and passion

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(c) Liz Laurent

Konstantin (Stephen Louis Grush) and his mother Arkadina (Mary Beth Fisher) share a rare moment of tenderness in Chekhov's "The Seagull."

Review: Chekhov’s “The Seagull”
at the Goodman Theatre, Chicago

Occasionally, the manifestation of a great theater company can rival the brilliance of the play at hand. Case in point: the Goodman Theatre’s thoroughly rewarding production of Chekhov’s “The Seagull.”

Viewed from any perspective – director Robert Falls’ uncluttered concept, designer Todd Rosenthal’s barely adorned deep-thrust  stage, the uniformly fluent and specific performances of a large cast of characters —  this “Seagull” offers a direct path to the troubled heart of Chekhov’s morally harrowing play.

In no small part, Falls’ production is so effective because it feels so natural, like episodes unrehearsed, without the artifice of entrances and exits. The players sit at the far end of a long rectangular stage built especially for this show. They are neither out of sight nor noticed. When they spring into view and into the conversation, their “entrances” seem spontaneous rather than cue

So well-considered and skillfully portrayed is this collection of unhappy, frustrated, insecure characters that you come away not quite sure who’s story it is: Who exactly is the seagull, the one soul most like that poor beautiful bird, shot and stuffed, lifelike but dead? Here, on this farm so far removed from the city and its clamoring voices of approval, which of these characters is most bereft of life?

At the core of that question is the grand dame Arkadina, the celebrated actress wholly consumed by her career, clinging to her fame, ever replaying her latest ovation. She has a younger lover, a writer called Trigorin, the current rage in literary circles. And, oh yes, Arkadina has a son Konstantin, a fledgling writer, living on this farm, always in his mother’s shadow and now further obscured by Trigorin as well.

Mary Beth Fisher’s portrayal of the self-absorbed Arkadina is a tour de force. She catches not only Arkadina’s endless posturing, but also her barely veiled anxiety over beauty’s flight and her deeply conflicted feelings about motherhood – about nurturing, when her own emotional need is to be at the center of any stage.

As Konstantin, Stephen Louis Grush effectively sets the bar for this production with his spot-on first speech, the harangue of a young playwright about all that’s false in theatrical tradition – not incidentally, the tradition that sustains his distant, uncaring, ever-preoccupied mother.

In a defining scene, as Arkadina tenderly freshens the bandages on her son’s self-inflicted wounds, Fisher and Grush move with inexorable gravity from laughter and remembrance to the ugly conflict that has come to alienate them from each other.

Between mother and son now stands the doubly threatening figure of Trigorin, a compulsive writer in his early thirties played with palpable world-weariness by Cliff Chamberlain. Nothing really happens to Trigorin in the play, but much happens because of him. Chamberlain’s measured, quiet speech provides all the romantic spark required to steal not only Konstantin’s mother but also the young man’s sweetheart, Nina – the play’s nominal seagull.

Nina, the exuberant and vulnerable Heather Wood, identifies herself with the slain bird, shot down in the fullness of its beauty only to be preserved, contained in time and place. In Nina’s final scene with Konstantin, when her dreams have dissolved into despair, Wood offers a heart-stopping account of a life that was not to be.

These four performances are matched by four more in Chekhov’s farmstead of the damned.

Francis Guinan is radiant as Arkadina’s infirm brother Sorin, a man who never aspired to much and is now bitter to see his life ending with his low expectations exactly fulfilled. And Scott Jaeck brings rugged presence and cynical truth to Dorn, the aging country doctor and ladies’ man made bitter by the numbing passage of time and opportunity.

As Polina, miserable wife of the farm’s manager who wishes only to flee with the doctor, Janet Ulrich Brooks is wretchedness personified, a gull with clipped wings gazing skyward. As her daughter Masha, hopelessly in love with Konstantin, Kelly O’Sullivan gives a performance of incandescent passion and compressed rage.

The Goodman has added six performances to its run. Six more reasons not to miss this stellar “Seagull.”

Through Nov. 21. www.goodmantheatre.org. Call (312) 443-3800.