Central Works illuminates madness in ‘Chekhov’s Ward 6’

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In “Chekhov’s Ward 6,” a doctor laments that the only other intelligent person to have a conversation with in his provincial town happens to be a mental asylum patient. This sentiment is representative of the core of the play, in which the doctor of the mental ward befriends and connects with one of his patients. The Central Works theater company presents this relationship and the other intricacies of the story seamlessly; from the action to the direction, each element of this production contributes to the incredible illumination of a story about the complexities of the mind.

The story of “Chekhov’s Ward 6” was adapted from a short story by Russian playwright and author Anton Chekhov. It was adapted by Gary Graves, who also directed the production. The play follows Dr. Andrei Ragin as he treats the patients of the hospital’s Ward 6. He develops a bond with a patient named Ivan and eventually begins to feel the impact of the asylum on his own mental state. The play premiered at Berkeley City Club on Oct. 13 and will play through Nov. 11.

The small space of the Berkeley City Club was a challenge for the production. Showing in a small room of the hotel on Durant Avenue, it was hard to imagine the theater company being able to pull off a convincing mental asylum, yet that was exactly what it did. There weren’t many props besides some piles of clothes on the floor; most of the setting was communicated through the asylum patients’ roughed-up appearances, in contrast to the neatly put-together appearance of the doctor. With dim, flickering lighting, all of the focus was then left to the performance.

A small, rectangular space with the audience surrounding the stage, every inch of the room was utilized, including the corners between the audience members’ seats. Graves, as the director, manipulated the stage blocking so that the characters were almost always moving; this prevented sections of the room from having to look at actors’ backs for too long. One of the most interesting decisions, however, was to utilize the fireplace at the front of the room. The character of Ivan spends a significant amount of time sitting under the fireplace. Because the fireplace is in a prominent spot in the room, even when Ivan is not speaking, attention is drawn to him. This forced audience members to focus on him before it became clear that this character has a dominant role in the plot.

When Ivan does become more immersed in the action, he is bewitching. Actor Ed Berkeley utterly shined as Ivan. His character is unstable yet immensely intelligent and grounded in reality at the same time. He aches to experience the outside world, asking Dr. Ragin mundane questions, such as what’s in the newspapers that day. Berkeley clearly depicted both sides of this character’s coin — his arm never stops shaking, yet he stands firm; his voice is booming in volume, yet he is speaking pragmatically. Even when Berkeley was not speaking he was so deeply in character it was almost as if you could see the wheels turning in his head.

Richard Frederick, playing Dr. Ragin, was a strong and compelling counterpart to Berkeley. His character is calmer, more stoic and grounded in his subdued beliefs. The contrast between the two was striking and their conversations were easy to get lost in. Frederick excelled in his soliloquies, giving insight into the mind of a man who studies the minds of others. And as things begin to unravel for Ragin, Frederick’s grasp on the character remained firm. This imbues authenticity into his character as Ragin’s grasp on sanity loosens.

With themes of madness and morality, there were many layers to be conquered in this story. Central Works’ production not only captured these layers, but heightened them. The themes became intricately interwoven into the characters’ stories, making for a transfixing experience of watching the inner minds of individuals play out onstage.

Nikki Munoz covers theater. Contact her at [email protected].