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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Saturday, Nov. 22, 2014

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Laura Rook and Jim DeVita star in American Players Theatre's production of "The Seagull."
Laura Rook and Jim DeVita star in American Players Theatre's production of "The Seagull." (Photo: Carissa Dixon)

APT's production of "The Seagull" flies to the front of the class

Three Russian musicians – a guitar, accordion and violin – prance about the stage, filling the evening air with the raucous words of upbeat Slavic cheer that can’t help but put a smile on your face, and after each tune, the applause thunders.

The three music players are joyous in their appreciation of their crowd, and the lights of the theater glitter off the smiles all around as the musicians exit stage left.

Get ready for Anton Chekhov’s "The Seagull" at American Players Theatre because these three players are the only happy people you are going to see for the next two and a half hours.

In a stunning and dashing production of this classic, the cast and crew has captured every nuance – humor-filled and grief-laden – of this marvelous play about love unrequited, and unrequited, and unrequited and ... well, you get the point.

Director John Langs leads this cast through each individual space in his or her life, all the while ensuring that we all understand the concept of "family," no matter how disparate, dysfunctional or dispersed.

Tracy Michelle Arnold leads this pack of players with a performance so powerful and inspiring that she is both larger than life and so tiny we need to squint to see each sideways glance or flutter of a finger.

Arnold plays Irina, a glamour-addicted aging actress who flits between the urbanity of Moscow and the bucolic lakeside country estate of her brother, the rapidly aging and cantankerous Sorin (Robert Spencer).

The two are central to this gaggle of grumps, but are far from the only attention grabbers. This is Chekhov so you know that every single person on the stage demands attention.

Let me draw the love stories.

Irina’s son, Konstantin (Christopher Sheard) is a budding young playwright who is hopelessly in love with Nina (Laura Rook), a landowner's daughter who wants to be an actress or anything that will make her famous.

Nina, however, has her sights set on Trigorin (Jim DeVita), a popular writer who is temporarily the plaything of Adrina. Trigorin slowly falls under the spell of the winsome Nina.

Masha (a vodka-slamming Anne E. Thompson) is loved by Medvedenko the schoolteacher (Tim Gittings). But Masha, the daughter of the estate overseer Shamrayev (a rollicking James Pickering), loves Konstantin while his wife Polina (an always vulnerable and stoic Colleen Madden) loves not her husband but the wily doctor (the taciturn James Ridge).

The first and most striking demonstration of familial rift is between Irina and her son, as she belittles his effort at a "new form" play he has written. That distrust is an apt metaphor for the crushing inability of any of these people to actually forge some kind of unthreatened connection with another.

There is almost a cloistered mien about these characters, but you find yourself holding your breath, waiting for the eruption of deep hidden hope or frustration, anger or ridicule.

Ridge comes closest to a lynchpin upon which all these people can coordinate something resembling reality. He gives the doctor a kind of detached whimsy, eyeing each of his characters with something approaching bemused sincerity.

APT has staged a spectacular season so far, and "The Seagull" easily takes its place at the head of the class. It’s hard to imagine a company better suited to breathe such life into a dark comedy like this.

These actors have captured the big stories and moments of the play, but there is also such attention to detail that there are small moments that leave you breathless.

At the end of the first act DeVita is about to leave for Moscow when he tilts to his deepening desire for Rook. He stands in front of her, with her back to the audience. They kiss, and he takes her hands, lifting them gently to the side as she throws her head back.

She looks as if she is a symbol of a seagull in beauteous flight, which is where this entire production spends the whole evening.

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