Play, interrupted: Theater in place

May 31, 2017

By Matthew E. Milliken
May 31, 2017

On the evening of Memorial Day, I drove to a residential street in a rural area near the county line separating Durham, home of the city of Durham, and Orange, home of the towns of Chapel Hill, Carrboro and Hillsborough. I went there to see a production of The Seagull in which a friend of mine was appearing. The show was being performed on the spacious grounds of a home; that is, it was entirely outdoors. It ended up being a memorable evening.

I’d previously neither seen nor read The Seagull, which Anton Chekhov wrote in 1895. This version was a 2012 adaptation by the British playwright Anya Reiss, which the local company modified slightly for the United States. Chekhov’s drama is set on a rural Russian estate, and the characters talk of running in Moscow’s exalted social theatrical and literary circles, while Reiss’s narrative takes place on the Isle of Man, with London standing in for the Russian capital. The staging I saw purported to be on a lavish, isolated Ocracoke Island estate on North Carolina’s Outer Banks; New York, naturally, was substituted for London/Moscow.

The estate is owned by Sorin, an elderly Supreme Court justice (at least in this telling), who lives with his young nephew, a passionate, impulsive would-be playwright named Konstantin, a.k.a. Kostya. All of the action revolves around two visits made to the estate by Arkadina, Sorin’s sister and Kostya’s mother, a famous stage actress. Her younger lover is Boris Trigorin, a critically and popularly acclaimed novelist, who indulges a mutual attraction he has with Kostya’s sweetheart, a local naif and wannabe actress named Nina. They’re not alone in having wandering eyes; aside from Sorin, his groundskeeper and a local schoolteacher, each of the other characters in the play is tied to one lover but makes a play for another.

Kostya, Nina and the schoolteacher, among other characters, are frustrated by their lack of financial independence. That’s but one of many, many things that irritated Kostya: Not only is his oedipal jealousy of Trigorin fairly palpable, he’s maddened by what he sees as his mother’s pecuniary miserliness.

This leads to an amusing moment late in the third act. When Kostya complains to his mother about her parsimoniousness, she protests that she has little money; it’s not clear how truthful she’s being, but she’s clearly stung by Kostya’s anger. As she and Trigorin are about to leave Sorin’s estate, Arkadina surreptitiously reaches into her brother’s pocket, pulls out a wad of cash and magnanimously presents it to the groundskeeper, telling him to tip the housekeeper and other staff members. I chuckled at the actress’s attempting to make herself seem generous with someone else’s money.

As mentioned, the show was outdoors; for each of the four acts, the audience moved its chairs from one part of the grounds to another. The sky was overcast for much of the evening, but there was no rain.

Just before the final act was to begin, a man — the play’s director, I think — approached his seat. “Thank you for no rain,” a young woman in the audience called out. He shushed her frantically; the theater crowd is a superstitious lot. And wouldn’t you know it…

To be continued… 

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