Ivanov, an early work by Anton Chekhov, is seldom performed. Based on the production currently at Washington's Studio Theatre, there's a very good reason why.
The 1887 play, adapted here by English playwright David Hare, is like a hall of mirrors: the title character (Philip Goodwin) is opaque in his misery, and all the other characters see what they want to see in him. Since the audience has no opportunity to put all the pieces together, the drama soon becomes ponderous. Even when the stage action is busy, the emotional depths are difficult to follow.
A secondary problem is the nature of Nikolai Ivanov's existential despair. He is described as a man who once dreamed of doing great things: politically outspoken, determined to work his land responsibly, and secure enough in himself to marry a Jewish woman (Susan Wilder) in an era of widespread anti-Semitism. Now he feels no joy or satisfaction but spends his time dissecting the tiniest moments of his life. In modern psychological terms, Ivanov's condition appears less philosophical and more like clinical depression, as much a medical concern as a spiritual one.
That said, Goodwin's Shakespearean background helps him understand how to elucidate a melancholy character, and he does as well as anyone could in bringing the essentially passive Ivanov to life.
Director Joy Zinoman is working with a broad canvas here, and while her actors offer thoughtful and often incisive characterizations, they don't necessarily fit together as an ensemble. Chekhov's group of people is all over the map, ranging from the broadly comic (J. Fred Shiffman as a constantly drunk landowner; Brilane Bowman, a fleshy and flashy widow of means; Tom Kearney, a bore who talks about nothing but his recent card games) to the achingly tragic (Wilder, a woman who has given up her family, her religion, even her name and health for the sake of love). In between are Michael Tolaydo as Ivanov's rascally estate manager, David Sabin as an equivocal aristocrat, Tom Story as the wife's self-righteous doctor (the sort of character one sees more often in Ibsen), Nancy Robinette as Shiffman's fearsome wife, and Jenna Sokolowski as their daughter, who na´vely believes she can restore Ivanov's joy of life.
Ivanov is the premiere production on Studio Theatre's newest stage, a third jewel-like performing space in the complex at 14th and P streets N.W. The new theater was designed by Russell Metheny, a longtime Studio Theatre scenic designer who also created the fascinating set: a rough back wall of crumbling and peeling plaster, shifting vertical beams that delineate acting spaces, and delicate sepia-tinted panels depicting scenes of rural Russia, set into two-dimensional pointed gables.
In contrast, Helen Q. Huang's costume design is simply incomprehensible. For some reason, many of these 19th-century Russian men wear jeans or cargo pants with their smocks and jackets, while the women wear exposed corsets on top of their dresses, and some also wear sheer petticoats outside their skirts. Possibly the intent was to suggest a "mental X-ray" of the characters, but it doesn't register.