WELLFLEET — To be a character in a Chekhov drama is often to be tantalized and tormented by the life unlived and by the knowledge that although you’re engaged in a game with mortal stakes, you’re unsure what hand to play.
That awareness of a trapped-in-amber existence creates an atmosphere of gradually intensifying desperation in “The Seagull,’’ now at Harbor Stage Company. Adapted and directed by Robert Kropf, it’s a stiletto-sharp production that marks another milestone for this indispensable young troupe, founded last summer by a handful of actors at the tiny waterfront stage that for decades had been operated by Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater.
As with their productions of Ibsen’s “Hedda Gabler’’ and David Rabe’s “Sticks and Bones,’’ the ensemble has shrewdly chosen material that plays to their strengths, individually and collectively. While Kropf’s adaptation eliminates numerous characters from “The Seagull,’’ the core remains. His six-member cast delivers truthful, penetrating, and vividly particularized characterizations of people who (barely) move in a narrow, stifling orbit as they wrestle with the big questions about the purpose of life and art that Chekhov forces them, and us, to confront.
At the moment, of course, any Chekhov production is unfolding against the funhouse mirror that is the Broadway hit “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,’’ which last month won the Tony Award for best play. In the hands of playwright Christopher Durang, the Chekhovian state of perpetual dissatisfaction becomes the stuff of comedy.
Chekhov described “The Seagull’’ as a comedy, though the overall mood on the country estate where it unfolds is anything but mirthful. Even those who do manage to summon the will to chase their dreams meet with disappointment and devastation.
The play is defined by a swing-for-the-existential-fences approach that nowadays can easily lend itself to parody. So Harbor Stage’s “The Seagull’’ faces the risk of risibility, right from the opening scene, when the mournful young Masha, portrayed by Stacy Fischer, asks herself why she always wears black (Medvedenko, the schoolmaster who usually asks that question, and whom Masha eventually marries, is one of the characters dropped from this adaptation). Masha then supplies the famous answer: “I’m in mourning for my life.’’
But there’s a wry self-awareness of her own melodramatic streak in Fischer’s Masha, and the other members of the Harbor Stage cast similarly find ways to steer clear of hoary stereotype and cliché while delivering performances of psychological insight and emotional force.
They include Brenda Withers as Arkadina, a vain, imperious actress who, though middle-aged, is convinced she could still play Juliet. A nervy bundle of energy, Arkadina complains at one point: “The temperature’s unbearable, nobody does anything, all we do is sit around and talk!’’ Alex Pollock portrays Arkadina’s hot-headed son, Konstantin, a playwright given to a decided grandiosity of theme and obscurity of expression. Konstantin is of the belief that “we must have new forms. And if we can’t, then better not to have any theater at all,’’ and when Arkadina reacts with deep amusement to a play Konstantin has written, he erupts in fury.
Unrequited love abounds in “The Seagull,’’ adding to the air of rising tension. Masha is smitten with Konstantin, but he is passionately in love with Nina, an aspiring actress played by Amanda Collins. Konstantin kills a seagull as a bizarre gift and gesture of devotion to Nina, but it’s too late: She is succumbing to the charms of Arkadina’s lover, Trigorin, a commercially successful writer portrayed by Jonathan Fielding. (Lewis D. Wheeler rounds out the cast as Dorn, a drolly observant physician.)
Trigorin feels imprisoned by his compulsion to write, his need to record every passing moment in a notebook as a way to compile creative fodder. “Every sentence you say, every word we exchange, I capture and lock up in the back of my mind, knowing that someday it may be useful,’’ Trigorin tells Nina. The outcome of the affair between them is chillingly prefigured when the author describes to the infatuated young woman the plot of a story she has clearly inspired.
Chekhov’s compassion is in evidence throughout “The Seagull,’’ but so is his unflinching determination to tell the truth, however wrenching. In that, the playwright has an able partner in Harbor Stage Company.