It was especially gratifying for those of us who seek holiness in live theater to encounter the Great Lakes Theater Festival production of Chekhov's The Seagull on Good Friday, for it stands for far more than a fine realization of a treasured standard. In the spirit of the holy season, it symbolizes a major rebirth for this festival.
The production not only returns the company to the assured grace that seemed to have departed with former artistic director Gerald Freedman. It is also a reminder of the glory that two of the organization's most cherished peacocks, Laura Perrotta and Andrew May, can achieve.
For the first time in many seasons, they are allowed to display their theatrical plumage as two of literature's most charming monsters. Perrotta is effortlessly beautiful, whimsically selfish and blissfully destructive as aging diva Arkadina. May has found the ideal vehicle for his matinee-idol persona, deftly emphasizing the dangerous fecklessness that makes his character, the writer Trigorin, so irresistible. Director Drew Barr does an exquisite job of showing how Arkadina and Trigorin wreak their gentle havoc.
If May and Perrotta are the evening's reigning royalty, Kevin Crouch as the doomed Hamlet stand-in Konstantin is the holy spirit. With his massive forehead and heart-shaped face, he is the perfect mirror to reflect the innocence and despair at the core of all of Chekhov's works. Looking like Ophelia doing her mad scene, Gisela Chipe gives us a Nina of heartbreaking vulnerability and passion. With every pinch of snuff, Sara M. Bruner vibrantly projects Masha's wry disillusionment. As Sorin, Great Lakes veteran Dudley Swetland has rarely been so alive and affecting.
Confession: I've long waged moral battle with Chekhov, knowing I was supposed to worship him but not understanding why. To my left during the Great Lakes performance sat a relative newcomer to the glorious Russian bird and to my right a wise professional who knows every fiber of Chekhovian cloth.
We all left the theater in a state of jubilation. I discovered that Chekhov, instead of being a spinner of depressing lugubriousness, was in reality the progenitor of the poetic melancholy that led to the exquisite and gently insightful plays of Tennessee Williams. Barr's lucid direction was the lightning that illuminated this revelation.
My companion to the right was in raptures that she had finally found, in her own backyard, an ensemble worthy of any British or Canadian theater festival. And my other companion heard compassionate music in the production's subtle shading of feelings and motivations.
Although Great Lakes has already staged three productions in the refurbished Hanna Theater, its Seagull proves to be the true debut of this magnificent space. On its arena stage, we're able to fully experience the incongruity of Arkadina's glamour and stinginess and Konstanin's contained emotional collapse as Nina tells him of her love for Trigorin.
With the world in turmoil, it is heartening to know that great works, when done with perception, can still light a path to the human soul.