Russian writer Anton Chekov is widely considered a father of the modern short story and modern drama, known for his numerous short stories and several major plays — and he is about to get introduced to the Lynchburg area through James River Theatre Company’s production of “The Seagull.”
Chekov has been performed around the world, but skimming through the Lynchburg area’s theater history, Alex Mitchell, a teacher of history, literature and humanities and recent director for a play at Regent School in Charlottesville, a thespian, and the director for James River Theatre Company’s production of “The Seagull,” did not notice any history of Chekov performances in the region despite his importance as a force in the theater world.
While Shakespeare and musicals abound in the Lynchburg-area theater scene, Mitchell saw the opportunity to bring something new. She pitched the idea of Chekov to James River Theatre Company, which has a goal of bringing classic plays to the area.
The production not only introduces Chekov to the area but also marks the start of an entirely women-directed season at James River Theatre Company.
While women serve roles in the theater industry, they usually are not directorial positions. From its inception last year, women-owned James River Theatre Company stated an express goal of changing that disparity in their corner of the world, giving women a chance to shine as directors with a professional theater company.
“We’re trying to continue to flip those gender norms on its head,” Hendrix said of offering women the chance to direct in a professional theater company. Of the gender disparity in theater directors, she added, “I think a lot of it is not necessarily talent, or the ability to do it, but it’s the opportunity to do it. Just opening that door for people.”
A four-act play centering around a small group of artists and other residents at a country estate in late-1800s Russia, “The Seagull” is a story that demonstrates the complexity of human character; explores emotions; examines communication, or lack thereof; and highlights consequences of choices not only to the individual, but to those around them. Characters wrestle with inner desires and conflicts they do not overtly communicate to one another, Mitchell said — often to their detriment.
A mix of comedy and drama, “The Seagull” is perhaps more relatable than ever in many ways, Mitchell noted.
Set in a country estate in Russia, the play’s characters — though physically together in their small social unit — find themselves relatively isolated with a lot of time to be alone with their thoughts.
“In the current world of the pandemic, we are left alone with our thoughts perhaps more than we would ever want or desire, and we constantly seek sources of things to distract us, or things to perhaps fill that void without actually confronting the problems that are in front of us with the people we care most about,” Mitchell said.
Not confronting problems leads to another major plot point of the story.
A primary conflict in the play is the characters’ unwillingness to say what they want to say, Mitchell said. They do all they can to avoid confronting things that need to be addressed, refusing to be direct and productive. This struggle or failure to communicate turns out to be harmful.
A major trait of Chekov’s works, Mitchell said, is the use of subtext. Seemingly mindless or insignificant, trivial conversations about the weather, about politics, about the use of horses; conversation that, on the surface, appears irrelevant or unnecessary. Yet embedded in this subtext is meaning Mitchell’s job as director and the task of actors is to extrapolate through performance and actions.
“Chekov is the master of subtext,” she said. “When reading Chekov, actually a lot of people find him quite uninteresting unless it’s performed in front of you, because so much is behind the words and in the performances of the actors.”
In “The Seagull,” Mitchell said the motivation behind seemingly irrelevant dialogue is a character seeking to get something out of another. A proposal; a confession of love; affirmation; whatever the desire may be. It circles back to the theme of characters having inner desires they are not directly communicating, she explained, preferring manipulation to confrontation.
Mitchell begins her directing process directly with the text of a play as she prepares to bring the story to life in the visual form it is designed for.
“I am very visual, and I view plays almost like a painting, where the audience should be able to plug their ears and still figure out what the story is, and who the main characters are just by where I place the actors,” Mitchell said. “I direct so that the visual storytelling the actors are doing, alongside the text, combines together to create a more cohesive piece.”
Actor Mckenzie Connell, who plays matriarch and aging actress Irina Arkadina, got the opportunity to challenge both herself and audiences to think twice about ascribing a one-dimensional label of villain or hero to a person.
Although it could be easy to construe her character as a villain, prone to being cruel and selfish, Connell said she appreciated the opportunity of showing the complexity of human nature, and that however misguided one’s actions or motivations may be, they usually see themselves as being in the right.
“She’s complex,” Connell said of Irina. “She’s really funny at times, and just incredibly sharp at others. She can be cruel when that feels threatened. But she has this really interesting side where, she is actually a really excellent nurse to the people who are sick around her. She’s extremely caring in that way.”
Connell read “The Seagull” during college, but had not come back to it until she was cast for James River Theatre Company’s show. Performing it now allowed her to engage with the text and its characters on a far deeper level.
“You can read this play and think that nothing is happening; that these people are just having regular conversations about playing cards, or about going to the city, or taking carriage rides. But what they’re really saying is so deeply seated and layered over with the politeness, and with the class expectations and all of that,” Connell said of the script’s subtext. “I just think that is fascinating to kind of unwrap.”
The play also challenges deep-seated gender stereotypes tied to expression of feelings, Hendrix and Crouch said. The open processing and acknowledgement of emotions in both men and women is characteristic of much classic Russian literature, and “The Seagull” is no exception.
Unlike widespread social perceptions that men should stifle their feelings for fear of looking “unmanly” and writing women off as “crazy” when they express emotion or passion, Chekov’s male characters have deeply introspective monologues and spend time considering and working through their feelings — and they are unafraid to express them.
In the case of the story’s female characters, they are shown to be complex and strong, not mere plot devices or labeled as crazy when passionate.
While processing emotions is healthy, “The Seagull” is also something of a cautionary tale reminding audiences to take care in choosing how they act upon their feelings.
One thing that makes Chekov’s play different from the format many are used to in Western storytelling is its ambiguous ending, Mitchell said, a conclusion some may feel is not a satisfactory resolution.
Tackling such topics is where talk-back sessions come in.
A few of the performances will be accompanied by talk-back sessions following the show, allowing the audience to engage in conversation with the show’s producers and artists. As an educator, Mitchell values talk-back opportunities.
“It’s always nice to be able to field any questions people could have, because it’s a very deep and complex show, both historically and in the text itself,” she said. “I think educational theater is really important, because it allows people to understand art on a deeper level. Even if people never take another theater class or don’t pursue it ever again in their lives, I think it allows them to engage with whatever media they view on a deeper level, and a more intellectual level as well.”
Point of Honor, the venue for “The Seagull” run, was the perfect setting for a story that takes place in a grand estate, Hendrix and Crouch said.
An outdoor performance will also safely accommodate larger audiences than an indoor venue would, given COVID-19 guidelines. Masking and social distancing will still be practiced at Point of Honor.
“When reading [Anton] Chekov, actually a lot of people find him quite uninteresting unless it’s performed in front of you, because so much is behind the words and in the performances of the actors.”
- Alex Mitchell, director for James River Theatre Company's production of "The Seagull"
“I am very visual, and I view plays almost like a painting, where the audience should be able to plug their ears and still figure out what the story is, and who the main characters are just by where I place the actors.”
- Alex Mitchell, director for James River Theatre Company's production of "The Seagull"