In his short lifetime—he died of tuberculosis at age 44—Anton Chekhov wrote more than 400 short stories and numerous plays (and all while practicing medicine, which helped to inform his writing).
As a writer myself (although, of course, one far less prolific, despite having lived more than a decade longer than Chekhov did), I can’t help but wonder whether Chekhov ever puzzled over which form, short story or play, best-served the tale he wanted to tell. Did he always know when he sat down to write that this one would work best as a play and that one as a short story? Or did he wait for his characters to direct him?
The Quotidian Theater Company’s adaptation of “The Lady with the Little Dog” demonstrates that some of Chekhov’s works could have gone either way.
In anticipation of seeing the play, I read the short story for the first time a few hours before Saturday’s performance. I was curious to see how the stage version would handle the exposition that makes up roughly half of the short story. Plus, how would a stage production, especially a production on QTC’s relatively small stage, convey a promenade along the sea along with multiple interior settings? Perhaps one factor Chekhov considered when deciding whether a tale was better suited for the page than the stage was the number of settings in which it took place. And finally, what about that titular dog? Would I see “animal trainer” listed among the production staff?
“I made up very little,” director and QTC co-founder Stephanie Mumford, who adapted the short story for the QTC production, told me before the performance began.
Stephanie incorporated much of the short story’s exposition as narration and dialog spoken by a character named Anton Pavlovich, a name that doesn’t appear in the short story. But, as in the play, the character Pavlovich is present throughout the short story. That’s because Pavlovich happens to be Chekhov’s middle name.
“In any story, the author is part of the story,” Stephanie noted. I loved that Pavlovich, played by QTC regular David Dubov, occasionally jotted notes in a small notebook, suggesting that the action on stage provided a glimpse into the writer’s imagination as he worked. Dmitri Dmitriyevich Gurov, played by Ian Blackwell Rogers, and Anna Sergeyevna, the lady with the little dog (I won’t spoil how Mumford handled that part of the story), played by Chelsea Mayo, sometimes finish Pavlovich’s sentences. Audience members also get to peer into Gurov’s head by way of recordings of Ian speaking the character’s thoughts, taken directly from the short story.
As for conveying the sea on stage, projections of images of the shore and the sound of the waves and seagulls left me feeling like I could almost smell the salt air.
“I think it will feel very much like you’re alive in the story,” Stephanie told me before the performance.
That was especially the case toward the play’s end, when Dmitri, hoping to run into Anna, travels to her hometown of Saratov and attends the opening night of an operetta. The QTC theater, of course, doubles for the Saratov theater. Four antique chairs placed in front of the Bethesda theater’s first row are reserved not for QTC subscribers but for the turn-of- the-20 the century Russian audience (the night I saw the play, Stephanie had to shoo a 21st -century audience member, obviously someone who wanted to get up close and personal with the action on stage, out of one of the antique chairs).
Dmitry, who turns to chase Anna up the stairs of the QTC/Russian theater, appears to be genuinely surprised and at least a little annoyed to see the audience. “Oh, heavens!” he exclaims. “Why are these people here?”
To see this fine adaptation of Chekhov’s love story, of course.
Rita Rubin, a Bethesda resident, is a long-time journalist who earned an MA in creative writing from Johns Hopkins in 2010. She earned a BS in journalism from Northwestern University. Rita has published several short stories and personal essays as well as thousands of news articles and features on websites and in publications ranging from Forbes.com to the Journal of the American Medical Association.