Affording rare insight into the evolution of the tough-minded humanism that keeps Anton Chekhov at the forefront of 20th century dramatists, Pacific Resident Theatre pulls off a near-perfect staging of "Ivanov," Chekhov's less-than-perfect first full-length play.
Compared to the ubiquitous staples in the Chekhov canon, "Ivanov" trades off a degree of script refinement for refreshing unfamiliarity. Its craftsmanship still puts most new works to shame.
In the title role, Paul Perri tackles Chekhov's closest approximation to a classical villain--an angst-ridden government bureaucrat who callously ignores his devoted wife's (Marilyn Fox's) losing battle with consumption. The poor woman has renounced her Judaism and family fortune for him, and Fox's portrayal incorporates a heartbreaking inner radiance that shines through the ravages of illness--making his betrayal all the more heinous. This cad's unyielding, self-aware coldness makes "The Seagull's" weak-willed Trigorin seem almost innocuous.
Still, we're led to a measure of sympathy for Perri's brooding Ivanov, who suffers deeply for his own failed love and compromised ideals. Just what's eating this guy is never clarified beyond a kind of free-floating male menopause, a nearly insolvable enigma.
With seamless precision the sizable ensemble articulates the rich complexity of Chekhov's world. The principals include William Dennis Hunt as a roguishly charming though penniless aristocrat, Lawrence Arancio as a hilariously henpecked bourgeois desperate to salvage a complacent status quo amid dark psychological currents, and Valerie Dillman as the much younger object of Ivanov's fading worldly attachments--the Ophelia to his Hamlet. Sharply delineated supporting performances are contributed by Vince Melocchi, Channing Chase, Sharron Shayne and Judith Montgomery.
Director Gar Campbell pays scrupulous homage to Chekhov's signature strengths--his limitless tolerance for human foibles, his naturalistic rendering of everyday life and his ability to find humor in the most unlikely places. Amid the deepest tragedy, the staging shimmers with vitality and laughter.
It's fascinating to see Chekhov working with dramatic devices he would eventually replace as his craft matured--the self-revelation in powerful but stagy soliloquies by Ivanov and the adversarial Doctor Lvov (Michael E. Rodgers), for example, would have emerged in later plays through more realistic dialogue.
Chekhov's recurring doctor figure is generally regarded as the author's voice, and when the moral superiority of this good doctor's outrage is eventually called into question, a turning point in more than the play has been reached--Chekhov has broken through to a rarefied dramatic plateau in which it's more important to understand than it is to judge.
"Ivanov," Pacific Resident Theatre, 703 Venice Blvd., Venice. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m. Ends May 2. $20. (213) 660-8587. Running time: 3 hours, 10 minutes.