LA JOLLA — Des McAnuff's staging of "The Sea Gull" at the La Jolla Playhouse proceeds from the assumption that it's necessary to divorce Chekhov from everything "Chekhovian" before we can see him clearly.
You will recall that the play begins on the edge of a lake at dusk, with a little home-made stage in the foreground. Treplev, the boyish writer, is about to try (in vain) to impress his actress mother, Arkadina, with a new play, which will be lit by the rising moon.
The mood is magical--particularly before Treplev's rather pretentious play begins. Daylight fades; a loon cries over the water; voices soften; it is an hour for declaring what is in one's heart.
Thus, the usual Chekhov production. Not this one. Instead of evoking a true picture, John Arnone's set evokes art--specifically the art of the theater. The trees are pretty flats. The grass is green-grained planking. The mansion in the background might be an electric-lit doll house.
Where are we? In some playhouse of the mind. See the wires, the curtains, the follow-spot. (Richard Riddell did the lighting.) Notice the way the characters come down to the footlights when they have something to confess or confide.
We see the point. For Arkadina and her circle, all the world's a stage. At once they can "lose themselves" in the scene they are playing and can stand back to enjoy the effect they are creating. Arkadina (Penny Fuller) is the most honest role-player among them, being a professional manipulator of emotion. But how keenly Trigorin, the middle-aged writer (John Vickery) relishes analyzing his own burnout. How vividly Nina, the young actress (Phoebe Cates), can see herself playing "Camille." Sorin, the landowner (George Hall), takes equal pleasure in his role as a zany invalid. Masha (Susan Berman) is playing the role of a tragic drunkard. Even the miserable schoolteacher, Medvedenko (Bill Irwin) makes emotional capital out of his misery. Without it, he would cast no reflection at all.
These are characters playing "characters." The point is made that, for Chekhov, there is something pernicious about the urge, extending far beyond this particular set of people, to make theater out of one's life. If only, Chekhov seems to be saying, we didn't pose so much--particularly during soliloquy. By making the theatrical metaphor overt, McAnuff solves the problem of how to deal with these soliloquies, a problem that plagues most realistic productions.
More important, he brings out a disapproving strain in Chekhov that is lost in more elegiac stagings. This "Sea Gull" understands its characters but does not necessarily forgive them their self-absorption, particularly when the well-being of younger people is at stake. The "Alice in Wonderland" air of the first three-quarters of the show, underlined by Arnone's fanciful settings, has a moral basis to it. Why --said Alice-- you're nothing but a pack of cards .
Nor does McAnuff take the metaphor of the playhouse too far. His characters behave in a realistic enough manner most of the time: We don't think of puppets on a string. Peter Frechette, as Treplev, for instance, is a young man visibly suffering from too many emotions at once, particularly in regard to his mother, who has much the same problem--as Fuller makes clear--in regard to him. For all its conceptual framing, McAnuff's staging doesn't lack psychological detail.
Yet I confess a relief when McAnuff and his designers remove the conceptual framework in the last act, and finally allow us some old-fashioned Chekhovian resonance. We have finally stepped back through the looking glass into a plain brown room with a hard rain--not to be taken for stage rain--coming down outside.
The theatrical spotlight never fully disappears. But it is fainter now, and when Nina leaves Treplev for the last time, she simply leaves: It's not an exit. A point of truth has been reached, fatal for him, and perhaps fatal for her too, eventually. (This is not one of those "Sea Gulls" where Nina goes off to become a great actress, hardened by what she has learned of life. All that is clear is how deeply she has been wounded by life.)
Here, finally, is the tone that the viewer can recognize as Chekhovian, that brooding mixture of ordinary surface and yearning subtext. One might have wished that the whole production had been able to maintain that mix.
Yet, having seen so many stagings that drown in that yearning tone (the American conservatory Theater's "Uncle Vanya" at the Huntington Hartford Theater a couple of seasons ago, for example), one welcomes McAnuff's attempt to find more than mere "compassion" in Chekhov. One feels in his stories that there is more to him than that, and in this production we see his strictness as a diagnostician. The play is shaken up, distanced, probed, even distorted, if you will. But in the end it is not played false. Chekhov without moonlight provides illumination.
'THE SEA GULL'
Chekhov's play, at the La Jolla Playhouse. Director Des McAnuff. Sets John Arnone. Costumes Patricia McGourty. Lights Richard Riddell. Translator Jean-Claude van Itallie. Sound John Kilgore. Wigs and hair Frank Bower. Stage manager Johanna Murray. Dramaturge Robert Blacker. Vocal coach Susan Leigh. Assistant director Ross Wasserman. Russian consultant Susan Bruner. Production Assistant Chris Williams. East Coast casting Stanley Soble/Jason LaPadura. West Coast casting Richard Pagano. With Bill Irwin, Susan Berman, George Hall, Peter Frechette, Corey Hansen, Phoebe Cates, Gillian Eaton, Harris Yulin, John Nesci, Penny Fuller, John Vickery, Marcelina Hugot, Dianna Berry, Mark Hallen, Gloria Mann, Christopher Randolph, Douglas Roberts. Plays at 8 p.m. Tuesday-Sundays, with matinees at 2 p.m. Sundays and Thursdays, through Sept. 14. Mandell Weiss Center for the Performing Arts La Jolla Village Drive and Torrey Pines Road. (619) 452-3960.