A bit of online research reveals that Avilova might have been a kind of stalker, a married woman who indeed met Chekhov and (like many others) became infatuated with the handsome, unmarried man who was apparently always a gentleman with women attracted to him. She carried on an occasional correspondence with Chekhov, attended the poorly received premiere of The Seagull in 1896 and met with him on a variety of occasions.
Arnold’s script is mostly about the impact of Chekhov on Avilova, the nature of love and attachment. She felt trapped in a loveless marriage, but she had children she adored. She chose to believe that, were it not for them, Chekhov would have elevated their relationship to a more intense level.
Whether or not that’s true, Arnold portrays a woman who aspired to a career in letters in a nation and at a time when such behavior was not common. Her admiration for Avilova is evident.
Arnold, who also wrote the piece, is an adept actress, and the moments when she becomes Chekhov are clearly distinguished from her portrait of Avilova. When he speaks, she assumes a mannish posture and a deeper, more confident voice. She has identified several gestures (especially the brushing back of a lock of hair and a narrowing glance) that quickly identify him, and she represents a man who is attractive even through such a filter.
Avilova is less confident and often uncertain of her standing, although always hopeful that Chekhov’s attention might grow. By the time of his death from tuberculosis in 1904 (he was 44, Avilova was 40), she had achieved a few modest literary achievements. (He, however, had married an actress in 1901.) Arnold portrays Avilova’s mental states with sensitivity, vacillating from halting confidence to hysteria. I wasn’t truly convinced that the relationship was mutual, but Avilova’s passion is evident.
Arnold uses recorded classical music to underscore her performance (many are piano “études”). In the restricted Media Bridges space, the music too often overwhelmed her speaking. The piece also includes a scene when Arnold sings, another evidence of Avilova’s passion for Chekhov. Her singing voice is thin and reedy, and it detracts from the depth of the woman’s feelings.
The Lydia Études is an interesting Fringe offering, more traditionally theatrical than many, but an intriguing character portrait that’s not out of place. Those who are fans of Chekhov will certainly find it intriguing. I would appreciated further information about Avilova’s life, perhaps in the form of a director’s note in the program. The woman lived for four more decades after Chekhov’s death, and she was certainly aware that many scholars doubted the veracity of her claims about the nature of her relationship with the writer. Nevertheless, Arnold’s performance is an earnest and serious effort to portray a woman living in an age quite different from our own.