It's not just that Sorin (the fine Michael J. Hume), the aging brother of the narcissistic actress Irina Nikolayevna Arkadina (the convincing Kathryn Meisle), is in declining health, it's that he's lost interest.
"One keeps living whether one wants to or not," he says.
And for the alienated characters gathered at Sorin's country estate, there's the rub: Unless you shoot yourself, you are condemned to keep living.
"Seagull" opened Sunday in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's New Theatre in a lucid revival directed by Libby Appel.
Bill Rauch's predecessor as artistic director at OSF and an avowed Chekhovphile, Appel has adapted the script from what's billed as a literal translation by Allison Horsley. Appel says that dropping the definite article from the title frees the idea of the bird to evoke freedom, destruction and other themes.
Chekhov was creating shows about nothing a century before Jerry Seinfeld. He even has Nina (Nell Geisslinger), the actress-wannabe daughter of Sorin's rich neighbor and the object of young Treplyov's (Tasso Feldman) unrequited love, say to Trepylov, "Nothing happens in your plays."
As Arkadina, who is always on, breezes into Sorin's estate with her lover, the middlebrow fiction writer Trigorin (Al Espinosa) in tow, Treplyov, her son, is preparing to preview his new play for the guests. Rejecting the sentimental theater of the day, in which his mother is a star, Treplyov says the world needs "new forms."
The experimental play that reflects his grandiose theories is set 200,000 years in a lifeless future and stars Nina, whose acting is comically inept. Arkadina's scorn ("boring!") causes Treplyov to abort the show in a rage, and the episode introduces the nexus of disconnectedness and disappointment that is the through line of "Seagull," which isn't really about nothing.
The playing is forthright, and the actors speak the contemporary-sounding text with clarity.
Meisle walks a fine line between Arkadina's extravagant divahood and the reticence demanded by Chekhovian subtext. She's cold but never a villain.
Feldman seasons Treplyov's unbearable frustration with a Hamlet-like revulsion that never gets the best of his need for his mother's love ("She loves me, she loves me not ..."). Geisslinger is a lovely, wounded Nina.
As if a poster boy for the truism that writers write about what they know, Chekhov gives us a country estate (he owned one), a doctor (he was one), an actress (he married one), a fiction writer (he was a great one) and an avant-garde play within the play — which was itself an avant-garde play.
Christopher Acebo's intimate set is bare to the bone but not humorless. There is a small divan on which nobody can get comfortable. Deborah M. Dryden's period-inspired costumes are rich in detail without calling attention to themselves. Todd Barton's score is all introspective Russian soul.
People come and go, conceive misfiring passions for each other, grow frustrated, behave selfishly, drink tea and vodka, fish, play games and die without ever saying the most important things. Treplyov loves Nina, who loves the rather unsavory Trigorin, who is smothered by the love of possessive Arkadina and who betrays them both.
Treplyov shoots a gull and gives it to Nina. She's repelled, but Trigorin sees an idea for a story in which a writer destroys a girl who lives by a lake for no reason. Although the production is described in the program as sexy, the two scenes that might be, one with Nina and a desperate Treplyov, one in which she's falling for Trigorin, are surprisingly short of heat.
Medvedenko, an unhappy teacher, loves miserable, vodka-swilling Masha, the daughter of the impossible farm manager Shamrayev. Masha loves Treplyov, but in vain. The aging doctor, Dorn, sees the folly all around him with some empathy but is incapable of engaging others, and so condemned to be an outsider.
It would be so very sad if it weren't frequently funny (Chekhov insisted it was a comedy). Each character wants something from a world that responds with heartless indifference.
The production's greatest virtue is that it is so close to the bone that while we certainly don't admire the characters, we may find ourselves viewing them with a detached compassion, even a flash of recognition that this is more than a play, this is life.
The production's greatest weakness is that Appel, in her desire to make Chekhov accessible, may have brought the subtext a bit too near the surface. Not that it's dumbed down — it's not — but the themes may be a little too explicit, the actors' objectives a little too much front and center. A Chekhov play is a sort of parlor trick in which the dramatist immerses us in a certain view of life while seeming merely to tell us a tale. While nobody would argue for obfuscation, having to grope your way through all the sleight of hand is part of Chekhov's game.
In program notes Appel acknowledges the fact that Chekhov is still seen as off-putting by many playgoers because of a reputation for elusiveness. A scattering of empty seats Sunday in the 300 or so capacity New Theatre suggested as much. Their loss. If you've ever felt attracted to Chekhov but were scared off, this is a good place to start.
Bill Varble is a freelance writer living in Medford. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.