REVIEW: The Seagull (Goodman Theatre)


          
           

Robert Falls allows this glorious ‘Seagull’ to soar

 

 

Nina (Heather Wood) listens as Trigorin (Cliff Chamberlain) talks about his obsession with writing and the fame that consequently follows as Arkadina (Mary Beth Fisher) looks on.

   
Goodman Theatre presents
   
The Seagull
   
Written by Anton Chekhov 
Directed by
Robert Falls 
Goodman’s Owen Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn
(map)
through November 21  |   tickets: $20-$45  |  more info

Reviewed by Catey Sullivan

With The Seagull, Robert Falls makes a stunning 180-degree swerve from the massive, nearly operatic productions he’s staged over the past few years. If King Lear and Desire Under the Elms were thundering landslides of theatricality, The Seagull is a lone, perfect pebble. Which isn’t to say Falls’ take on Anton Chekhov’s ground-breaking masterpiece lacks the gob-smacking emotional heft of his overtly showier efforts. Far from it. Played by actors in minimal costumes on a bare stage, The Seagull is as thrilling a production as you’re apt to see this season – an example of storytelling at its most powerful. That Falls manages to enthrall without the help of conventional costumes, sets or even lighting design illustrates just how gifted the Goodman’s Artistic Director is.

(clockwise from front center) Konstantin (Stephen Louis Grush) informs Masha (Kelly O’Sullivan), Dr. Dorn (Scott Jaeck), Sorin (Francis Guinan) and Medvendenko (Demetrios Troy) that Nina has returned to town but will not see any of them.Another indication of Falls storytelling prowess: Two hours of The Seagull elapse before the audience is released for an intermission. We’d be the first to cry foul at such a demand. Holding your audience captive for 115 minutes? Not fair. Moreover, since the vast majority of the dialogue within The Seagull seems to deal solely with superficial inanities, such a marathon sit will surely be all but intolerable, yes? In this case, no. Falls and his rockstar cast have captured the emotional truth in Chekhov’s text with a power and a glory that makes the piece fly by. Those first two hours feel like 20 minutes.

The intricate passions of Chekhov’s story are reflected in the sprawling cast, every member of which has their own vibrantly realized emotional life – right down to a cook (Laura T. Fisher) who has but a single line and less than a minute of stage time. When even the ‘bit’ roles are this rich, you know you have an ensemble of extraordinary power.

The action – which is actually mostly dialogue – spans several years and takes place on the country estate of Arkadina (Mary Beth Fisher), a famed, vain actress for whom adulation is an opiate. Much of The Seagull focuses on Arkadina’s tectonic clashes with her angry young son Konstantin (Stephen Louis Grush), a playwright struggling with love and art. The difference between mother and son is akin to the difference between Broadway in Chicago and any number of tiny, Off-Loop theaters. Which is to say: Konstantin, who sees his own art as pure, beautiful and meaningful while dismissing his mother’s shows as pandering tripe.

 

Arkadina (Mary Beth Fisher) expresses her deep passion and need for Trigorin (Cliff Chamberlain) to stay with her. Masha (Kelly O’Sullivan) seeks to numb her feelings and shut out the rest of the world.
Sorin (Francis Guinan) attempts to comfort Konstantin (Stephen Louis Grush) as he grapples with the complexities of his life. Nina (Heather Wood) performs in one of Konstantin’s plays in front of (l to r) Medvendenko (Demetrios Troy), Shamrayev (Steve Pickering), Polina (Janet Ulrich Brooks), Dr. Dorn (Scott Jaeck), Arkadina (Mary Beth Fisher), Trigorin (Cliff Chamberlain), Konstantin (Stephen Louis Grush) and Sorin (Francis Guinan).

Fisher is glorious, mining both comedy and pathos from a character whose depths are often profoundly superficial.  Grush is perfectly cast as a tortured artist who strives for edginess with the rage of a petulant child who is certain that adults are trivial and adult artists are pandering hacks. In their scenes together, the two are incendiary, a mother and son whose see-sawing love/hate relationship will never find an even keel.

Kelly O’Sullivan’s Masha is equally indelible, a black-clad emo/Goth prototype capable of the sort of gasp-inducing cruelty borne of unbearable sorrow and frustration. In capturing the bitter aesthetic of a woman who knows her life is over at 20, O’Sullivan is also laugh-out-loud funny, blurring the line between tragedy and comedy with such finesse that they become impossible to tell apart. As Masha’s husband, Demetrios Troy continues establishing himself as one of the most fascinating young actors around, portraying the put-upon Medvedenko as the personification of disillusionment and impotent fury borne not of hatred but of love.

And as Nina, the radiant, innocent young woman who is as easily destroyed as the titular bird Konstantin slaughters, Heather Wood makes Chekhov’s overarching metaphor a devastating heart-breaker.

   
   
Rating: ★★★★
   
   

Konstantin (Stephen Louis Grush) shows his affection for his mother, Arkadina (Mary Beth Fisher), after a traumatic experience.

 

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REVIEW: The Long Red Road (Goodman Theatre)

We all need a reason not to die in our sleep

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Goodman Theatre presents:

The Long Red Road

 

by Brett C. Leonard
directed by
Philip Seymour Hoffman
through March 21st (more info)

reviewed by Catey Sullivan 

We all need a reason not to die in our sleep. Such is the sad, irrefutable wisdom of The Long Red Road, where that reason proves relentlessly elusive. In playwright Brett C. Leonard’s stark, devastated landscape, bodies are physically wrecked by alcohol, hearts spiritually wracked by alcoholics.

Production_08 “I’m afraid I’ll always be thirsty,” says Sam (Tom Hardy), an alcoholic for whom every new day offers a thousand good reasons to die. Hardy’s delivery of the line sends shivers down the spine. There is no quenching this kind of thirst, only the temporary escape of blackouts. Sam isn’t alone in the conclusion that the unbearable heaviness of being is all but unendurable. Each of the six tormented souls in The Long Red Road is wandering through a desert, the unshakable ache of the relocation muscatel blues chasing them like arid Furies.

Director Philip Seymour Hoffman orchestrates the piece like a conductor shaping a symphony. A slow, deliberate crescendo of damage builds shock upon shock, none of them gratuitous, all of them wrenching. Leonard’s dialogue is spare; some scenes are all but monosyllabic, others entirely wordless. With the economy of poetry, Leonard makes every word count. The suffering on stage hits hard, the lack of extraneous frills in the staging making it all the more intense. A small oval of light in a sea of darkness pinpoints the stunning damage to a 13-year-old girl as she’s being raped by a close family member. An overflowing ashtray and a small FedEx box indicate the pathetic remnants of a life lost to whiskey. A barn ladder is an entry try way to the sins of the father, monstrosities inflicted through generations, ensuring generations of monsters to come.

Production_06 Yet for all that, The Long Red Road is profoundly optimistic. It gives nothing away to say that in the final scene, there’s a baptism by fire as an inferno consumes a silent, sinister monument to decades of abuse and awful secrets. Sex, throughout most of the play defined by fear, hate, and loss, becomes a powerfully redemptive celebration of forgiveness and unconventional beauty in the last scene. Characters who have been waiting all their lives for confirmation that they are, in fact, human beings of value, potential and goodness receive that confirmation. That it comes from beyond the grave is tragic. That it comes at all is reason for joy.

At the crux of Leonard’s harrowing drama are two brothers: Sammy (Hardy, utterly convincing as a drunk hurtling toward the point of no return) and Bob (Chris McGarry, simultaneously repulsive and profoundly empathetic portraying a man as damaged as he is damaging). Leonard gives us the backstory in atmospheric slashes of exposition, leaving the audience to connect-the-wounds as the picture slowly comes into focus.

After a horrific, completely preventable car accident led Sammy to abandon his wife Sandra (Katy Sullivan, whose flat affect is imbued with infinite shadings of conflicting love, hate, fear and stony self-reliance) and daughter Tasha (10th grader Fiona Robert in an astoundingly nuanced performance that displays range and depth well beyond her years).

Nine years after the accident, Bob is overwhelmed, tortured and enraged by demons warping his desire to do right by his inherited family into something terrible. Sammy is drinking himself to death in the dead-end town of Little Eagle, South Dakota, his school teacher girlfriend Annie (Greta Honold, a near-perfect depiction of an adult child of an alcoholic, trying to save the drunk boyfriend stand-in for her drunk father) patiently, choosing not to see the dead-end in the depths of Sammy’s “drunk, bloodshot, bullshit eyes.”

“You’re probably waiting on someone I ain’t never gonna be,” Sammy says one night, a razor-blade shard of truth slicing up through the seemingly endless torrent of repellent self-delusion that keeps him (barely) alive. That is, of course, exactly what Annie is waiting for. The moment illustrates the power of Leonard’s language and of Hoffman’s astute direction: It is instilled with the sorrow of a million lost drunks, that rare sliver of inescapable reality that propels one irrevocably toward either recovery or death.

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For Clifton (Marcos Akiaten), the Native American bartender at the ironically named Red Road bar (the red road, Clifton explains, is the Native American phrase for sobriety ), Sammy’s increasingly self-destructive binges are the symptoms of a deeply diseased man.

When the bar’s patrons – fed up with Sam’s cringingly offensive rants – decide to tie Sam to a truck axel and drag him through the Reservation (with a sign proclaiming the likes of “I’m a racist honky” around his neck), Clifton steps in and saves him. Akiaten is a largely silent wonder, dispensing tequila shots with the judgment free stony-eyed compassion that comes from a stone-solid foundation inner strength. This is a man who has fought the Furies and won – at least for today in a one-day-at-a-time recovery process that will never pass into the past tense. Clifton’s recovering, never recovered. Akiatenin captures that beautifully, craggy face reflecting the never-ending battle of turning away from a bottle while living with an endless, unquenchable thirst.

Stories of alcoholics are rarely ground-breaking – there’s nothing new about the saga of a drunk who leaves his family in ruins. But this particular tale is so authentic that it transcends its well-trod genre. When Sandra screams that Sammy “took my legs,” the moment is as raw and real as theater get, primarily because Sullivan is a phenomenal actor but secondarily because she was born without legs. The Long Red Road is defined by such veracity – startling,  moving and at times, difficult to bear in its stark authenticity.

If this acting thing doesn’t work out for Hoffman, he can always fall back on directing.

 

Rating: ★★★★

 

VIDEO: Playwright Brett C. Leonard discusses his play

 

 

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