‘Seagull’ proves challenge

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Anton Chekhov’s play “The Seagull” is, as Scot Mann writes in his production notes for the Back Door Theatre’s latest performance, a play that cannot establish itself as a comedy or a tragedy. This lack of definition (despite Chekhov’s insistence that the play is a comedy) naturally makes it very challenging to perform. After Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice”, “The Seagull” was an ambitious addition to the Mercer Players’ season, and the cast took difficult material and delivered a good performance.
Aesthetically, the production was beautiful. With paint, the crew managed to create a mountain silhouette and a smooth stone floor that wonderfully evoked the mountain lake at which Chekov has set the play. Ranging from bowers on the lakeshore to the furniture for the dining room and drawing room of a house on the water, the set pieces were elegant and evocative. The lighting was wonderful. In addition to the warm tones of sunlit afternoons and the cool blues of twilight, Marian Zielinski’s light design incorporated a projection of a full moon—silvery and ethereal—and a leaf pattern cast onto a forest floor as if shining through trees. And as usual, Shelley Kuhen and her costume crew did a flawless job with the costuming.
When it came to the performance itself—which I viewed Feb. 15—the play became less of an aesthetic experience and more a session in mental calisthenics. The script is challenging and specializes in subtext, rarely confronting any subject directly. The cast was very good at using tone and timing to emphasize comedic moments. Even so, long sections of the first half felt as slow as the summer afternoons the characters kept mentioning. The play did not really take off until the second act. Tense, dynamic and increasingly tragic, the second act was more of the quality performance I expect from the Players.
The show was really carried by Back Door veterans Suzanne Stroup, Liam McDermott and Tory Johnson. Johnson’s character—Arkadina, an aging actress and the mother of McDermott’s character—is vain, snobbish and possessive. Somehow Johnson managed to play her in a way that was not only convincing but sympathetic. Her scene in which she begs her lover, the writer Trigorin, to stay with her was one of the most powerful of the play thanks to Johnson’s performance.
McDermott took a little while to warm up, but when he did, his portrayal of a success-hungry and love-struck young playwright named Treplev was fantastic. His tragic and tortured Treplev was the best role I have ever seen McDermott perform, and he scaled the range of his character’s emotion deftly and compellingly. Mercer’s theatre goers are lucky to have McDermott for one more year, but they are going to sorely miss Suzanne Stroup if her plans take her away from Macon. Stroup portrayed Nina, a young and hopeful actress who becomes one of the tormented vertices in a nasty love quadrangle. Stroup effortlessly portrayed Nina’s character development, highlighting Nina’s innocence and sweetness in the first three acts but losing it for the final act, which occurs two years after the main events of the play and after Nina has been disillusioned by life. Her chemistry with McDermott in their final scene was electric, and her speeches in that scene were painfully sad but very compelling.
Other notable performances from supporting actors included Braeden Orr’s Dorn, Cohen Bickley’s Sorin and Shelby Hall’s Masha. Hall should be proud of her first Players’ performance, having completely sold the audience on her unhappy, funny and mildly neurotic character.
Sophomore Ryan Jones is another newcomer to the Back Door family. His performance as Trigorin, a famous and melancholy writer, exuded a grave calm which was effective for his character. The delivery of his lines, though, lacked variation both in tone and in rhythm, following a monotonous up-and-down pattern. A few more shows under Mann’s direction should polish Jones up from a novice to a veteran, but everyone has to start somewhere.
The casting choice I found most jarring was Jim Sisson, who played the estate manager Shamrayev. His character is written to be flamboyant, but Sisson’s performance was so over-the-top that it became overbearing. His performance did not fit well with the rest of the cast, throwing the ensemble off balance.
The overall effect of the play was shattering. The final scene between Stroup and McDermott saved the day with its height of passion and the depth of Treplev’s despair. “The Seagull” was not the strongest of the Mercer Players’ performances this season. However, they delivered another satisfying production, leaving the audience looking forward to their next endeavor in the spring, “Legacy of Light.”