“Why do you always wear black?” asks the simple schoolteacher Medvedenko (Rob McLaughlin) of Masha (Tracy Penner), the object of his affections.

“I’m mourning my life,” replies Masha.

Your enjoyment of the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre Warehouse production of The Seagull - the theatre’s entry in this year’s Master Playwright Festival - will probably depend largely on your ability to find the humour in those opening lines of the play.

' But its story of disaffected characters looking to the past and the future for an escape from their present still seems to have a lot to say to a Winnipeg audience on a cold winter night.' - Joff Schmidt, CBC reviewer

And indeed, the success of Krista Jackson’s production of Anton Chekhov’s classic (translated here by celebrated Canadian playwright David French) lies largely in finding its strange, bleak comedy - and balancing that with its soul-draining tragedy.

In classic Chekhov fashion, The Seagull is a play where nothing much happens, that’s about many things. The play’s action - such as it is - unfolds on the estate of Sorin (played delightfully by Harry Nelken), a retired civil servant in his last years who’s fearful of death, since he feels he’s never lived. His sister, the prima donna stage star Arkadina (a fabulously histrionic Sharon Bajer) comes to visit along with her travelling companion, the middling literary star Trigorin (Tom Rooney), and her son Constantine (Tom Keenan), a would-be writer who yearns to create new forms of drama and literature.

Along with a host of supporting characters, most everyone here is in love with the wrong person, and Chekhov uses the central characters to explore questions of art, fame, and attraction - and seems to suggest the unhealthy balance between celebrity and artistry was no better in turn-of-the-century Russia than it is here and now.

Of course, this being Chekhov, much of this is said through what’s unsaid. While characters frequently speak obliquely around their true feelings, their subtext reveals a whole other story - and Jackson’s well-paced, smartly-tuned production draws those unspoken stories to the surface. She also finds more comedy than might be expected in the text - it’s hidden between the tragedies of the characters’ lives, but comes to the fore here in a surprisingly funny production.

Bethany Jillard in The Seagull

Bethany Jillard in The Seagull (Bruce Monk)

She gets lots of help from a solid 13-member ensemble cast. Bajer does a great turn as the self-obsessed Arkadina, and Rooney delivers the show’s stand-out moment with a heartbreaking monologue that reveals the awful reality of being a successful artist. Bethany Jillard (who’s previously impressed RMTC audiences as Scarlett in Gone With the Wind and the title character in After Miss Julie) finds wonderful, subtle notes as the aspiring actor Nina. Ross McMillan, Rob McLaughlin, and Tracy Penner are excellent in their supporting roles.

French’s adaptation is largely successful at avoiding the pitfalls of the too-common “stilted translation” - although the formal language does take some getting used to. Similarly, the production’s 140-minute running time tests the audience’s patience at points - but pays off with a haunting, though abrupt, ending.

The Seagull’s first performance in 1896 was a fiasco famously savaged by critics and audience alike - and had Chekhov vowing to never write for the theatre again (a vow he fortunately broke, as performance styles adapted to better serve his work).

And more than a century on, The Seagull is still not an easy play to grapple with. But its story of disaffected characters looking to the past and the future for an escape from their present still seems to have a lot to say to a Winnipeg audience on a cold winter night.

The Seagull runs at the Tom Hendry Theatre (RMTC Warehouse) until February 8.