Chicago Theatre Review
In Mourning for My Life
The Seagull – Eclectic Full Contact Theatre
Possibly the most famous two lines of any Chekov play opens this production, translated by prolific British playwright Christopher Hampton, and directed as a beautiful, modestly supported production by Jaclynn Jutting. Masha is asked, “Why do you always wear black?” Her dour response is, “I’m in mourning for my life. I’m unhappy.” This opening confession, provokes the first laugh of the evening, however it could’ve been uttered by almost any of the characters in this play. No one in this comedy seems particularly happy with his existence. However, there’s promise in the air, which is definitely filled with possibilities of love.
Anton Chekov’s first major play was written in 1895 and performed the following year. However, it wasn’t until 1898 that it was declared a hit, when Constantin Stanislavski directed a successful production for the Moscow Art Theatre. The play, which is set at a country lake estate, is actually inspired by the site at which the playwright composed his masterpiece.
Aspiring, young writer Treplev is getting ready to present the premiere of his newest play on an outdoor stage. He’s written this short drama for Nina, the neighbor girl with aspirations to become an actress and with whom he’s infatuate. Treplev is also secretly hoping that Arkadina, his famous actress mother, will finally be impressed by his talent. She’s arrived at the estate to visit Sorin, her ailing brother, where Treplev has also been staying to work on his writing. Trigorin, a famous Russian author and her handsome lover, has accompanied Arkadina on this trip, much to her son’s disapproval. Also living on Sorin’s estate is Masha (the young woman always wearing black), who’s secretly in love with Treplev, her mother, Polina Andreyevna and her father Ilya Shamrayev, a retired military man and the caretaker of the estate. Two friends are also visiting Sorin: the village doctor, Yevgeny Dorn, and Semyon Medvedenko, a local schoolteacher. It’s in this first of four acts that Chekov sets up a series of romantic angles: Treplev loves Nina, Nina’s in love with Trigorin, and vice versa, Arkadina also loves Trigorin, Masha loves Treplev and Medvedenko loves Masha. The good doctor attributes all this romance to the influence of the lake.
Jaclynn Jutting has directed her lovely production with passion and joy. She’s expertly taken her talented cast on a journey toward self discovery through their characters, guiding them toward empathy and understanding. Ms. Jutting has lifted each character from the page of this script and breathed fresh, new life into them. She’s also incorporated every square inch of the tiny Athenaeum studio into Chekov’s world, even the steep center aisle through the audience, which becomes the path to Nina’s house. Talented scenic designer Pat Iven must be heartily congratulated for the inventive, versatile way he’s created so many locales out of so few set pieces in such a small space. And while Catherine Tantillo hasn’t gone for minute details, she’s provided the essence of turn-of-the-century Russian fashion in her lovely costumes.
There’s much to like about this cast. Michael Woods is excellent as Trigorin. He offers masculine strength along with a kind of middle-aged vulnerability that makes this worldly writer especially endearing. Whether falling under Nina’s charms or making love to Arkadina, this actor’s honesty shines like a burning candelabra. He’s matched by Jessica Kingsdale’s superbly wrought Masha. From this actress’ first lines to her final scene, she’s absolutely captivating. While never pulling focus, whenever Ms. Kingsdale is on stage attention gradually drifts toward her incredibly, expressive face, simply to enjoy her reactions. Made rigid by unrequited love, the actress creates a Masha who’s unwilling to bend while never weakening in her love for Treplev. Kelly Lynn Hogan is quite perfect as Arkadina, the grande dame of the Russian stage. Her histrionics, as an actress who’s always “on stage,” seem quite appropriate, as does the ridicule she dumps on others, particularly her overly sensitive son. Ms. Hogan’s best scene (of many) is when she pleads desperately with Trigorin to return with her to Moscow and forget this silly, young Nina.
Andrew Pond creates a gentle, likable, sincerely caring Dr. Dorn, the one character offering support and comfort to everyone else, even beyond his medical skills. David Elliott is soundly convincing as Sorin, an elderly man who understands that his time on earth is nearly over and frankly feels the regrets of all the roads he hasn’t taken. Nick Hyland shows real promise as Treplev, particularly in his quieter moments. But there are times when Mr. Hyland gets carried away by the emotions he’s playing. Especially in such a small theatre, the actor needs to be aware that he sometimes contorts his face, often grimacing and mugging. Along with Brookelyn Hebert as Nina, toning down a bit would ground both of these young characters and sink more honesty into their portrayals. True, both Nina and Treplev are unstable, but that emotional instability is currently being played almost from the start. Tiny glimmers of the abyss where they’re headed should certainly appear, but playing such heightened extremes from the start doesn’t give these actors anywhere to go.
This is, all together, a very enjoyable and competent production of a theatrical classic. Whether it’s the theatergoer’s first visit with Chekov or a repeat performance, this fine production features several excellent and very fine performances that feel honest and realistic. Chekov’s story of artistic and romantic conflict offers memorable characters, several laughs and a dose of bittersweet sadness. It’s an enjoyable production well worth the journey to this Russian lake house.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented October 4-November 1 by Eclectic Full Contact Theatre at the Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport, Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling the box office at 773-935-6860 or by going to www.eclectic-theatre.com.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.