THEATERMANIA: What was the rehearsal process like with your director, Austin Pendleton?
JESSICA HECHT: He's profoundly knowledgeable about Chekhov, and he's been working on this play in particular for 35 years. He's done like seven productions, I think, in different forms. He's so knowledgeable about the minutia of what's going on that you can ask any question or start any scene and he'll throw in a little, "Oh, you do remember that when the mother was alive they were like debutantes. They were very elegantly dressed, and when you're conjuring up your childhood and what have you, I just want you to look at this picture of this ball that they might have been at." He's also able to put those philosophical questions and things people say into very active terms.
TM: Does he have a particular way of having actors handle the dialogue? JH: He forces you to speak all those lines very conversationally until you get the weight of it underneath. He forces you to keep saying it in a way that makes you understand it's part of their speech, their vernacular, so it's this really interesting mix of insisting that the actors are very connected emotionally and filling it in with the historical details. You rarely get that.
JH: I find it particularly challenging to make the ideas real and accessible and not overblown. It moves so rapidly both emotionally and intellectually. That's the difficult thing about Chekhov. We have the tendency to linger in certain things that the characters are experiencing because they are very powerful emotions, but those characters, I don't think languish in that way. I think they move on, so the difficulty is having an emotional experience and then going to the next thing immediately. Also, many of the audience members know the story, so you want to propel it in an exciting way. It's really hard to go from thought to thought and emotion to emotion with as much energy as I think it requires.
TM: What do you consider the most rewarding aspect of doing Chekhov?
JH: The thing that's most rewarding about Chekhov by the same token is the range of one's life that you get to play with any given character. The range of joy, depression, hope; it's so rare that any character is granted that much of a scope, and that's pretty true of all the characters.
TM: In this production, the set feels like less of a set than someone's living room you just happened to stumble into. How does it influence your performance?
JH: This is one of my favorite sets I've ever worked on. It helps us realize the struggle that's going on without trying to push it beyond the bounds of the space. You walk onto that set in the opening dinner scene, and the audience is in your dining room with you. It makes it completely believable to us as actors that it's okay for the audience to be there. If it was a formal or more theatrical set, I would be preoccupied with the presence of the audience in a way that I think would undermine the production and the audience's experience of it. You're watching these people's lives, and some moments you'll catch and some you won't, but this is their home. Austin doesn't stage things completely, so you can easily move in a different way on any given night, and that set accommodates that.
TM: Do you like to change up where you move on stage from night to night?
JH: I'm so old school.That's actually been the hardest thing for me in the production, Austin saying, "No, it could be anything. You can change it tomorrow if you feel inclined." But that's our performance, and my job is to fill it the way we've set it, not to just change it up because I don't feel that way, but they'll still get the story if I don't stand up or have this outburst. It's difficult because I'm used to the director saying, "This is what works best for this moment."