Americans often play Chekhov the way they do cricket -- as if it's someone else's game. The dolefully comic elements of his works are rarely communicated naturally by actors here -- we're a more frivolous culture, I suppose -- and directors seem to tolerate unpardonable amounts of mannerism. Rarer still is the cast that approaches his dramas with a consistent style; the common formula is a dozen performances that seem to emanate from as many productions.
So it's a pleasure to report that a new incarnation of Chekhov's "The Seagull" by Rep Stage avoids many of the usual hazards. Director Kasi Campbell sensitively guides an agile cast through a warm and intelligent rendering of the sad string of cruelties rained down on vivacious Nina and tragic Konstantin, the tortured young man who loves her.
Campbell has done an exceptionally good job of casting her "Seagull," and the translation she uses, by no less a wordsmith than Tom Stoppard, is supple and pleasingly colloquial. Stoppard's language here is forceful and direct, devoid of the soporific lyricism that sometimes afflicts translations of Chekhov. This script was used in Mike Nichols's revival of the play in Central Park in the summer of 2001 with Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Natalie Portman. And wouldn't you know: Campbell's production makes more satisfying use of Stoppard's adaptation. What this suggests is that there is no substitute for engaging actors who first try to find ways to illuminate the text, rather than merely try to dazzle the audience.
The Rep Stage "Seagull" is a traditionalist take on this frequently performed play. And though Campbell occasionally attempts some slightly unorthodox bit of staging -- in one key instance, it goes disappointingly awry -- her production is at its best when it simply lets the actors go about their business. In this regard, Campbell is assisted greatly by her leads, Karl Miller as Konstantin and Megan Anderson as Nina. Helen Hedman, playing Konstantin's selfish actress-mother, Arkadina, and Nigel Reed, as Arkadina's narcissistic lover, Trigorin, deliver incisive accounts as well. But it is the young people of this "Seagull" -- and especially Miller's neurotic, heroic Konstantin -- who give the proceedings a fervid pulse.
"The Seagull" is a deeply pessimistic play, one that piles misery on misery. Everyone is in love, but with someone unhappy or unattainable, and the dreamers of the story are rewarded with pain, penury and hollow lives, or worse. The saddest lots are doled out to the most attractive characters, Konstantin, a frustrated writer, and Nina, an aspiring actress. In Chekhov's cynical view, both are worthy, promising young people -- and so are doomed. They lack the mettle of their shallow, self-infatuated elders: Trigorin, who has achieved fame as a hack novelist, and Arkadina, a penny-pinching leading light of the Russian stage who would sooner starve her son than give him an extra kopeck.
Arkadina is possibly the least likable character in all of Chekhov -- it is her emotional cheapness that paralyzes Konstantin -- and Campbell makes her cruelty as obvious as the clothes on her back. Costume designer Kathleen Geldard comes up with a sumptuous winter dress for Hedman in the sorrowful final act, a bit of glamorous, beaded finery that has the opposite effect to what Arkadina might have imagined. The dress tells the story of a small-minded and foolish person. The scenery by Tony Cisek and lighting by Dan Covey aptly evoke a well-appointed country house at the turn of the 20th century, although oddly, the production offers little evidence at play's end of the wintry world just outside the doors.
What Campbell and company do provide in their "Seagull" is an evening with a sturdy foundation and a smooth finish. Only in the famous scene between Arkadina and Konstantin, in which the mother ministers to the head wound of her son, the result of a botched suicide attempt, is credulity strained. The awkwardly staged episode has Miller cowering under a table, clutching one of its legs. Then Hedman crawls under there with him, as if to prove there really is a maternal bone in Arkadina's body. The activity feels forced; it's the kind of actor-y embellishment best left in the rehearsal room.
The play's opening scene, however, in which Nina performs Konstantin's experimental new play, is crisp and vivid. And Miller is at all times terrific as a thwarted artist, tormented by the belief he's meant both for bigger things and for the arms of Nina. He makes Konstantin's final, nihilistic act seem the logical exit for a man in such turmoil. Anderson captures the wide-eyed ambition in Nina; her face shines in Trigorin's presence, and her abundance of pure feeling helps you to forgive the terrible blow she inflicts on Konstantin. Hedman's Arkadina is deftly balanced between vanity and frailty: a fading flower desperately trying to hold onto all her petals. Reed, too, is well cast as the blond trophy whom Nina and Arkadina both want to possess. The character's self-involvement never seems too transparent.
Among the other cast members, Bill Hamlin makes an appealing Sorin, and Bruce Nelson's Medvedenko, the town wallflower who marries the contemptuous Masha (Cheryl Resor), does justice to his final moment, a farewell acknowledged by no one.
For all its merits, this "Seagull" is the not the most emotional you're likely to encounter. You don't well up easily in scenes that often provoke tears, as when, in their last meeting, Nina confesses to Konstantin the sorry outcome of her dreams. Campbell's take is defiantly unsentimental, a vision the play can support. Her production is an admirable example of how to make Chekhov most welcome in an alien land.
The Seagull, by Anton Chekhov. Translation by Tom Stoppard. Directed by Kasi Campbell. Sets, Tony Cisek; lighting, Dan Covey; costumes, Kathleen Geldard; sound, Chas Marsh. With Bill Largess, Robert Leembruggen, Annie Houston, Jeff Consoletti. Approximately 2 hours 50 minutes. Through Oct. 10 at Rep Stage, Howard Community College, 10901 Little Patuxent Pkwy., Columbia. Call 410-772-4900 or visit www.howardcc.edu/repstage.