Updated Thursday, January 31, 2013 at 11:46 AM
“Any idiot can face a crisis,” observed the great Russian playwright Anton Chekhov. “It’s day to day living that wears you out.”
Any Chekhov production worth its weight in rubles understands this.
Yes, his 1896 classic “The Seagull” ponders love, literature, theater, suicide. But as The Seagull Project’s thorough exploration of the play at ACT Theatre makes clear, such lofty concerns are often sidetracked (and affected) by mundane interruptions and disappointments.
Such irritants can be funny, agonizing, or both. No horse? No trip to town, to escape doldrums and family angst. A stern father? He cuts a longed-for visit short. A sideswiping remark? It can crush your heart.
Small, lifelike disturbances share the canvas with more poetic hopes and longings, in this much-anticipated “Seagull” staged by John Langs.
The 10-member cast, sporting some of Seattle’s leading thespians, spent nearly a year studying and rehearsing the play. Their total immersion shows, in performances that are (mostly) lived-in and full-bodied.
With near-omniscient sensitivity, director Langs paces the play fluidly on Jennifer Zeyl’s open, rustic-wood set, and allows the humor and the agony of Chekhov’s tragicomedy to commingle organically. There are no big effects here, but there’s a valuable crystalline clarity.
As Masha, a pining hanger-on in the unhappy country home of a famed actress, Arkadina (Julie Briskman), and family, Hannah Victoria Franklin is no buffoon. But she has the viper tongue of a cynic, the woozy posture of a drinker, and the stubbornly absurd sorrow of an unrequited lover.
CT Doescher plays her suitor, Medvedenko, comically but vividly, as a gawky bore but a loyal one.
The vanity of Arkadina, swanning about in Doris Black’s Moscow-chic gowns and shawls, can be selfish and cruel. Yet we see how it’s also her survival tool. Arkadina’s bemused writer-lover Trigorin (John Bogar) seems more passive and introverted than she. But it’s clear their monomaniacal devotion to their work, and inability to love generously, make them birds of a feather.
In “The Seagull,” Chekhov was one of the first great writers to subvert a prevailing romantic formula of theatrical villainy and heroism. His neurotic, flawed, keenly self-critical people are framed within a listless Russian summer idyll, in a time and place where (in Lang’s interesting emphasis) only the serfs are free to shed their inhibitions and enjoy themselves.
What is only partially fulfilled in this rendering is Chekhov’s double portrait of the story’s younger, striving and more fragile artists. As Nina, ardently pursued by Arkadina’s lonely son Konstantin (Brandon Simmons) but infatuated with Trigorin, Alexandra Tavares looks lovely in Black’s summery embroidered frocks. But she’s less compelling in her naive state than at the end, when years later Nina returns as a scarred veteran of love and art, persevering through sheer, gritty resolve.
Simmons gives an earnest account of Konstantin, but relies too much on shouted outbursts to convey emotion. He also slips into notes of flippancy that can be (mis) read as shallowness.
Fellow ensemble members Mark Jenkins, Peter Crook and Julie Jamieson turn in fine-tuned work. And Robertson Witmer’s wistful and folksy music sets the bittersweet tone perfectly.
Misha Berson: firstname.lastname@example.org
By Anton Chekhov. Through Feb. 10 at ACT Theatre, 700 Union St., Seattle; $15-$35 (206-292-7676 or www.acttheatre.org)
John Bogar and Alexandra Tavares in “The Seagull.”