seagull_alaska.jpgLast night, I was lucky enough to see the opening night performance of a new production of Chekhov’s The Seagull, a London import starring Kristin Scott Thomas as the actress Arkadina.

I’ve seen several Arkadinas in my time, and Thomas’s is my favorite so far. She brilliantly sounded all of the notes of Arkadina’s character: the vain, the coquettish, the self-doubting, the tender, the terrified, the magnetic. Hers was a truly attractive Arkadina: all of the characters on the stage are drawn to her, and you can see why. Their lives feel comparatively empty when she is not around (and there were times last night when Thomas was off-stage that the production seemed the same way).

I checked my iPhone at intermission, about twenty minutes into the debate between vice presidential hopefuls Joe Biden and Senator Palin. I caught a snippet on “Senator Joe Biden and Governor Sarah Palin disagree . . .” — no news there.

Walking out after the performance, I checked the iPhone again and was greeted by a succession of text messages:

I am blinded by rage and can’t see straight . . . She is so smarmy and not answering questions . . . But she says nuclear like Bush does AND she is attacking with her lipstick on ARGH.

The thing is she isn’t fucking up. And so she will probably come out ok. Biden is doing REALLY well.

Whoops off the rails a little bit. She doesn’t seem to know what Achilles heel means . . .

I found myself thinking back to one of the dramatic high points of any production of The Seagull, the scene in which the young actress Nina, returns to the lakeside country estate owned by Arkadina’s brother Sorin, where the action of the play takes place. Nina is beloved by Arkadina’s son, Kostya, but she herself is madly in love with Arkadina’s lover, the famous writer Trigorin. It was at Sorin’s estate that Nina first met Trigorin in the play’s first act, and now, late in the play, she remembers a moment in which Trigorin tells her about an idea for a story.

In her first scene, Nina tells Kostya that “she is drawn to this place, this lake, like a sea gull.” In the second act, jealous of Nina’s growing infatuation with Trigorin, Kostya shoots a sea gull and lays it out as an offering to Nina. A few moments later, Trigorin launches into a longwinded account of his struggles as a writer and then tells Nina about an idea for a story that has just just occurred to him:

a young girl, like you, has lived beside a lake from childhood. She loves the lake as a sea gull does, and she’s happy and free as a sea gull. But a man chances to come along, sees her, and, having nothing better to do, destroys her just like this sea gull here.

Seeing those text messages made me think of John McCain, venturing to Alaska, plucking out a country governor named Sarah, who until then had been happy and free as a sea gull, and putting her in the spotlight of the presidential race, where she seemed at first to flourish, but lately has seemed to be floundering.

When Nina returns to Sorin’s estate in the final act, she tells Kostya about her life during the two years that have intervened since we last saw her. Kostya already knows (and has revealed to the audience) that Nina has had an affair with Trigorin and borne a child, lost the child to sickness, and struggled as an actress on provincial stages. Now Nina tells it to us from her point of view. She can’t quite keep her thoughts straight or finish sentences, but in the midst of her rambling, she remembers:

I became petty and common. When I acted I did it stupidly. I didn’t know what to do with my hands or how to stand on the stage. I couldn’t control my voice. But you can’t imagine what it feels like — when you know that you are acting appallingly.

That’s an incredible moment of self-awareness for the character, and it can be heartbreaking if played right. It’s also treacherous, because the actress uttering those lines had better be convincing and not be acting “appallingly” herself or the lines will have an unintentional irony. (Carey Mulligan, who played Nina last night, carried it off pretty well last night; Natalie Portman, who can be superb in a well-directed play or film, fared a little less well some years ago in Central Park.)

I found myself wondering if Sarah Palin ever experienced moments of both self-doubt and self-awareness akin to Nina’s. Her response to the question about the “Achilles heel” would suggest not:

GWEN IFILL: Let’s talk conventional wisdom for a moment. The
conventional wisdom, Gov. Palin with you, is that your Achilles heel is
that you lack experience. Your conventional wisdom against you is that
your Achilles heel is that you lack discipline, Sen. Biden. What id it
really for you, Gov. Palin? What is it really for you, Sen. Biden?
Start with you, governor.

SARAH PALIN: My experience as an
executive will be put to good use as a mayor and business owner and oil
and gas regulator and then as governor of a huge state, a huge energy
producing state that is accounting for much progress towards getting
our nation energy independence and that’s extremely important.

But it wasn’t just that experience tapped into, it was my connection to
the heartland of America. Being a mom, one very concerned about a son
in the war, about a special needs child, about kids heading off to
college, how are we going to pay those tuition bills? About times and
Todd and our marriage in our past where we didn’t have health insurance
and we know what other Americans are going through as they sit around
the kitchen table and try to figure out how are they going to pay
out-of-pocket for health care? We’ve been there also so that connection
was important.

But even more important is that world view that I
share with John McCain. That world view that says that America is a
nation of exceptionalism. And we are to be that shining city on a hill,
as President Reagan so beautifully said, that we are a beacon of hope
and that we are unapologetic here. We are not perfect as a nation. But
together, we represent a perfect ideal. And that is democracy and
tolerance and freedom and equal rights. Those things that we stand for
that can be put to good use as a force for good in this world.

John McCain and I share that. You combine all that with being a team
with the only track record of making a really, a difference in where
we’ve been and reforming, that’s a good team, it’s a good ticket.

Uh-huh. This non-answer to Gwen Ifill’s question was characteristic of Palin’s approach to the entire debate. Maybe she simply heard the word “experience,” and it was a matter of “Print Screen”: she simply spewed out what she’d been coached to say on the subject of “experience.”

Maybe she really doesn’t know what an “Achilles heel” is. Or maybe she’s just constitutionally incapable of being self-aware enough to evaluate her own faults. (Biden, of course, immediately answered in a way that indicated that he not only knew what the phrase meant but also knew how to be both self-aware and self-deprecating: “You’re very kind suggesting my only Achilles Heel is my lack of discipline.”)

In The Seagull, Nina, if played right, becomes a figure of both pathos and sympathy. With Sarah Palin, it seems to be one or the other. Quite a few people, we’re told, find her to be a sympathetic figure. But quite a few more, I suspect, find her simply to be pathetic.

The Seagull is, in the end, a tragedy. We’ll see what kind of narrative this election turns out to be.

[Image: A seagull in Homer Spit, Alaska. From http://www.]