Two Chicago theaters breathe new life into old favorites

November 8, 2010

If you’ve ever dreaded a production of a familiar play because whatever could possibly be said or done about it has already been said or done, I have the cure. Go see The Seagull at the Goodman (through November 21) and then go see Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at Raven (through December 19). Chicago is a town that prizes new work, but don’t worry: each of these is new work at the very highest level.

The program-cover illustration for The Seagull is absolutely perfect: an X-ray of the bird. Director Robert Falls sees right through the play, sweeping away the long dresses and heavy furniture of the traditional Chekhov production to present it in modern dress on a bare stage. Between their scenes actors sit upstage, observing the action. Blake Montgomery did much the same thing with his Hamlet at the Building Stage several years ago, working in an almost Brechtian fashion with idle actors in full view in the wings while their active colleagues negotiated life and death on a bare promenade. There, as here, the director stripped the barnacles off a familiar text to reveal the shining–and deadly sharp–metal beneath.

The comparison is apt for another reason: as Falls’ approach makes clear, The Seagull is Chekhov’s Hamlet. Here’s a self-doubting and directionless young man whose disturbingly sexy mother neglects him in favor of a new inappropriate lover. He estranges the woman he loves, who ends her own life in madness. And–more important than any plot parallels–The Seagull, like Hamlet, is a play about the two meanings of the infinitive “to act”–to pretend, and to do.

Just as Hamlet spends most of his time pretending, and talking with actors about pretending, despite ever-clearer calls for him to get on with his task, so the characters in The Seagull waste time in masquerade and sham while real life slides inexorably by.

The Seagull refers to Hamlet right from the opening scene, when the actress Arkadina (the excellent Mary Beth Fisher) returns to her family’s estate for a visit and comes into immediate conflict with her son Konstantin (Stephen Louis Grush). “Oh, Hamlet, speak no more!” she cries, to a smattering of applause. “Thou turnest mine eyes into my very soul.” This reference, and the others scattered through the play, always seemed to be a tossed-off indication of Arkadina’s self-importance: she’s not just a middle-aged woman with a boy-toy lover and a sulky son, but a queen, don’t you know?

But Falls teases out the serious implications of these allusions, revealing The Seagull as the story of Konstantin’s paralysis. And yet rather than deforming the play by shifting its spotlight, this understanding illuminates every one of its tangle of actions, showing how the most important subjects can be acknowledged and yet evaded.

Thus many genuine and necessary actions are blocked by pretense. Arkadina pretends to be poor when both her son and her ailing brother (Francis Guinan of Steppenwolf, in an outstanding Goodman debut) need her help. Her novelist-lover Trigorin (Cliff Chamberlain) pretends to be bored with success but actually finds it so intoxicating that he beds Nina (Heather Wood) just because she praises him so lavishly. Dr. Dorn (Scott Jaeck, in a wonderfully subtle performance) refuses to pretend but also refuses to do anything: he cares for Sorin but won’t prescribe anything to relieve his pain; he loves another man’s wife but won’t run away with her.

The sincere characters are the ones who are destroyed: Polina (Janet Ulrich Brooks), who loves the doctor who won’t leave his other mistresses for her; Nina, whose summer encounter with Trigorin destroys her life. And if Nina's final scene with Konstantin, raving about her love for Trigorin, seems over the top, of course it is: we’re watching Ophelia’s mad scene.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof also contains plenty of pretense in lieu of action–- hence its famous discussions of ‘mendacity.’ But that’s clear from every competent production of the play. And a year ago Circle Theater did a production whose Maggie (Kimberly Logan) was as close to definitive as I ever expect to see. So why would Raven even bother?

Apparently because Michael Menendian, too, sees things in a familiar work that the rest of us have missed. What he sees here is that, while Maggie has the showiest role, Brick is the pivotal character. Why does he spend his life drunk and hating his wife? Is it because she slept with his high-school friend Skipper? Or because she suggests that Skipper was in love with him? Or because he was actually in love with Skipper? And Tennessee Williams doesn’t give us much to go on, having Brick lie around in a drunken stupor for most of the play.

Menendian’s master stroke was in casting Brick and Big Daddy with actors other than the larger-than-life Paul Newman and Burl Ives clones usually chosen for those roles. He chose a pair of actors willing to let their characters’ relationship loom larger than their egos. As Brick, Jason Huysman listens to Big Daddy as to no one else, and finally, unwillingly, gives himself away. And Jon Steinhagen, a compact man cast completely against type, makes Big Daddy into a man more concerned with his son than with himself and prepared to use any tactic to get at the truth.

So for the first time I realized that Brick isn’t merely sulking but refusing to forgive himself.

When he answers Maggie’s “I love you” with “Wouldn’t it be funny if that were true?” he means no one could love him after the thing for which he holds himself accountable. The following day I was still thinking about Brick and Big Daddy, and what it takes for fathers and sons to communicate; whereas before I saw the Raven production I would have said that Cat was about how difficult it is to be a woman in a man’s world.

There’s nothing like the thrill of something brand-new. But getting that thrill while watching something you thought you’d already seen–-that’s better still.

And if I haven’t persuaded you, seeing these two productions will.