The creative team at the Stonington Opera House has always sought to use the natural beauty of its island home to challenge and expand the traditional notion of theater.
A giant excavator, puppets and dancers teamed up twice — in 2007 and 2010 — to present innovative original pieces in the local quarry. For its fifth anniversary in 2004, a team of writers penned several short plays while riding the ferry to Isle au Haut and back.
This summer, director Peter Richards has given new life and depth to Anton Chekhov’s “The Seagull” by performing on the grounds of and inside a barn at a saltwater farm owned by the Ames family that is located about a mile from the Opera House. The size of the audience is limited to 50, which turns the production into an intimate, familial experience. Theatergoers feel as though they either are nosy neighbors peering over a stone fence to spy on the antics of the eccentric clan next door or longtime servants everyone is so used to they forget they’re there.
That was Chekhov’s intent — to rip away the veneer of a family’s normalcy and happiness to expose the unfulfilled dreams, lost loves and longing that fester in the human heart. By taking the play outside to a stunningly beautiful seaside setting and then moving into a claustrophobic barn, the director and his cast have made modern the conflicts Chekhov set in 1895 at a farm outside Moscow.
The production begins on the water’s edge with Konstantin Gav’rilovich Treplyov preparing to present a play he has written for his family, starring his neighbor and aspiring actress Nina Mikhailovna Zarechnaya. It is to be performed for his mother, Irina Nikolayevna Arkadina, a famous actress in Moscow; her lover, Boris Alexeyevich Trigorin; and other members of the family and friends.
As Konstantin, Matt Hurley captures the dark soul of the young artist unsure of his talent, never able to please his fickle mother. Hurley’s energetic angst at turns is comically tragic and intentionally Hamletesque. Hurley’s Konstantin is the guy everyone knows who’s always just on the cusp of success, love, fulfillment but never quite able to grasp it.
Susannah Hoffman’s Nina is delightful. The actress sparkles as a young woman undone by love for the wrong man and the pursuit of a dream she’s not quite talented enough to achieve. Nina is the character who suffers the most but manages still to hope. Hoffman gives her a steely survivor’s instinct that is in sharp contrast to her wispy exterior.
As Irina, Kathleen Turco-Lyon creates a matriarch who has more in common with Darth Vader than Gertrude, Hamlet’s neglectful mother. Yet Turco-Lyon makes it impossible to dislike Irina. She is a selfish charmer, devoted to her career, obsessed with keeping her younger lover in her bed and befuddled by her son. Despite all that, Turco-Lyon makes the audience love her.
Trigorin is tricky to portray. He is a writer who views everyone and everything in his life as source material for his stories. Craig Baldwin gives him a sleazy intellectual charm utterly lacking in depth that is perfect.
The entire cast is very fine, but Thomas Piper as the local physician, Dr. Yevgeny Sergeyevich Dorn, stands out. He’s tasked with moving the audience from the seaside set to the orchard to the barn and manages to capture more theatergoers’ hearts than any other character. He infuses Dorn with the ability to do what no other character can — embrace life in the moment and be satisfied.
Richards’ vision of “The Seagull,” is beautifully executed by scenic designer Ray Neufeld, costumer Carol Farrell, lighting designer Natalie Robin and sound designer Mark Van Hare. The work of Robin and Van Hare is essential in creating the subtle changes in mood that take place in the play’s final act staged in the barn.
There are few other theater companies in Maine that challenge and reward an audience the way Opera House Arts’ creative team does. “The Seagull” is a perfect example of how a play written more than 100 years ago and half a world away from Maine’s rocky shore can be made relevant, its characters real, in the 21st century. It’s a production that should not be missed.
“The Seagull” will run Thursdays to Sundays through July 26. For ticket information, call 367-2788 or visit operahousearts.org.