Just minutes into the performance of her son’s unintelligible symbolist play, her withering comments begin. “He didn’t choose any kind of ordinary play,” she complains to whoever will listen, “but filled our ears with this decadent drivel.” Ouch.
Combining a do-nothing naturalism with trenchant psychological observation, The Seagull has all the potential in the world to lapse onstage into tedious yammering about rubles and valerian drops. In the script, it’s a uniquely Chekhovian knack that elevates so much griping among characters to such profound truths about art and life, but the significance could all be lost on a director or performer who doesn’t understand how to unpack the material.
A week before opening night, Sobel sat down with me to discuss The Seagull. “In Chekhov’s play, every character seems wanting to be understood, or to do something,” she explains, “rather than to take in the other characters’ needs. It’s very human.” This, she believes, is the reason Chekhov thought of the play as a comedy. “People actually tell each other in The Seagull who they are and what they want, and they just don’t listen, you know?”
Among many appropriate choices in this play, The Seagull isn’t staged in period costume. It works because, without those odd old clothes, the audience can build a closer rapport with the characters. Sobel’s direction seems clearly focused on substance.
With certain roles, she says, “When you work in that playwright’s work you feel like, Oh, I’m home, this is where I live. And Chekhov is that way to me. He makes so much sense to me.” In Sobel’s hands, The Seagull retains its complexity. It’s a troubling examination of how both art and love can tangle the human heart, but one that—somehow—makes a kind of sense.