The subtitle to “The Seagull’’ underscores Anton Chekhov’s view of his creation: “A Comedy in Four Acts.’’ But ever since it premiered in the late 19th century, many directors have chosen to interpret Chekhov’s play as primarily a grim-faced tragedy.
In her Huntington Theatre Company production of “The Seagull,’’ Maria Aitken takes that subtitle seriously, so to speak. While giving due weight to the play’s strong currents of melancholy, Aitken deftly mines the vein of humor that runs through the first three acts before shifting decisively to the much darker mood of its quietly devastating final act.
Her cast proves entirely capable of sustaining Chekhov’s tricky blend of drollery and anguish, led by the estimable Kate Burton. As the vain actress Irina Nikolayevna Arkadina, Burton delivers a skillfully calibrated portrayal of an imperious yet vulnerable woman whose entire life amounts to a self-willed performance. Morgan Ritchie, Burton’s real-life son, acquits himself well as Arkadina’s tormented son Konstantin, a playwright prone to despair.
Auden Thornton is quite moving as the innocent, ill-starred Nina, while Meredith Holzman makes for an amusingly bluff (though eventually hard-hearted) Masha. Holzman tosses off the character’s famous explanation for why she always wears black — “Because I’m in mourning for my life’’ — with a matter-of-fact shrug. As Sorin, Arkadina’s brother, on whose farm “The Seagull” unfolds, Boston favorite Thomas Derrah etches a portrait of a man ruefully aware that he is faintly ridiculous, constantly punctuating his conversation with a stammered “Or something.’’
Of conversation there is plenty in “The Seagull.’’ When Arkadina complains early in Act 2, “Oh, what could be more boring than this divine country boredom! It’s hot, it’s quiet, nobody does a thing, we all just sit around and talk,’’ the line may bring a mirthless smile if you’re not favorably disposed toward Chekhov’s work, because that might be an apt description of “The Seagull’’ and any number of his other plays. Chekhov wasn’t big on plot, at least not in the traditional sense.
But of course it only seems that “nobody does a thing.’’ In reality, worlds are being turned upside down by all that talk. The most overtly dramatic events in “The Seagull’’ occur offstage, but action of the psychological kind is plentiful.
The conversations in this “Seagull’’ feel like everyday language — Chekhov’s goal — rather than literary language, making the characters seem less remote from our time. Aitken, who replaced Nicholas Martin as director when Martin withdrew for “personal reasons’’ in January, uses a translation by Paul Schmidt, who deliberately sought to redress what he saw as a longstanding set of problems: translations by British scholars that made Chekhov’s characters “sound like English aristocrats,’’ by native Russians that made them sound “awkward and stilted, ’’ and by Russian scholars that made them sound “formal and unidiomatic.’’
His mission, Schmidt explained in an introduction to a collection of Chekhov’s plays, was to “re-create in American English a voice that resounds within the American language the way Chekhov’s voice resounds within Russian.’’
That enables Chekhov’s message to register clearly in “The Seagull,’’ where he forces us to consider the toll that art takes on those who create it, and the toll that love takes on those who succumb to it — the unrequited kind, anyway. Masha pines for Konstantin, but Konstantin loves Nina, an aspiring actress. However, Nina quickly loses her heart to Trigorin (Ted Koch), a celebrated and commercially successful writer. Ominously, Trigorin’s first extended conversation with Nina inspires an idea for a short story about a man who meets a young woman “and ruins her life because he has nothing better to do.’’ Trigorin, by the way, is Arkadina’s lover — and she’s determined to keep it that way.
And art? Nina seems to believe that happiness and fulfillment can be found in a career on the stage, but she finds her pursuit of that career an extremely punishing one. The discordant mother-son relationship between Arkadina and Konstantin so central to “The Seagull,’’ and so ably enacted by Burton and Ritchie, is further complicated by their radically different conceptions of theater. She’s a traditionalist while he bases his writing on the belief that, as he vehemently says: “What we need are new forms! We need new forms, and if we can’t have them, then we’re better off with no theater at all.’’
As for Trigorin, he is a virtual prisoner of his compulsion to mentally record observed details for use in future stories. “I feel like I’m devouring my own life,’’ he tells Nina. He’s overthinking every moment. In that, in “The Seagull,’’ he has plenty of company.