Though often disturbing and unsettling, Leslie Epstein’s Regina is carefully crafted and masterfully written. Centered around a revival of Anton Chekhov’s Chaika (1896; The Sea Gull), this novel is a study in parallels, the most significant of which are those to Chekhov’s work. In the revival of The Sea Gull, the reader witnesses the return of a middle-aged actress who makes a desperate struggle for physical and emotional survival in a contemporary city which seems to defy the very notion of survival. Above all, Regina is the story of one woman’s frantic quest for love and for meaning in life.
Regina, which takes place in New York City sometime in the 1980’s, covers only one month’s time, from late July through late August. The novel is divided into four parts, each covering periods ranging from a day to a week. The protagonist, Regina Singer, is on a quest, searching for some substantive meaning to existence. In her mid-forties, she has begun to reevaluate her life. She and her husband, Davy, have been separated for several years, but he still hounds her about a reconciliation. She has become bored with her job as a film and drama critic and sees the revival of The Sea Gull as a chance for a new start—her own personal revival. The characters with whom she interacts guide her through the stages of her renewal.
Regina’s younger son, Francis, is a manifestation of her fear and her constant consciousness of danger. When she quotes some lines from The Sea Gull referring to the devil, Francis wants immediate reassurance that there really is no devil, no spirit of matter, of rotting and change and decay. Later, at the end of the first day in the novel, Francis wakes from a nightmare, crying, afraid. Francis is, in a sense, also a symbol of Regina’s internal drought, for since Francis’ birth she has been frigid and has somehow managed to repress her menses.
Regina’s other son, Benjamin, is an enigma. He is nervous, an insomniac, and obviously suffering emotionally. In a sense, he is a symbol of modern urban existence. He is obsessed with television newscasts and newspapers, particularly with the coverage of a recent rash of rape-murders in their neighborhood. Regina tries to see into Ben but is arrested by the plastic-wrap glaze over his green eyes. She and Davy both worry that Ben may be on drugs, but what bothers Regina most about her elder son is that he seems to understand her and everyone else too completely. He almost seems to be a prophet. When she recounts her experience of misreading her part at the first reading for the play, Davy and Francis laugh, seeing the humor in the situation. Ben, however, shows a deep concern and pity for his mother, which unnerves her even when he forces a phony laugh. Also, he correctly predicts that the boy arrested for the neighborhood murders is not the right one. Even though Regina is not a practicing Jew, she is deeply disturbed that Ben has embraced Christianity. It also worries her that his feelings for animals have turned him into a vegetarian, consistent with his childhood concern for flies and moths. Regina recalls the time when she found four-year-old Ben kissing the picture of a murderer in a magazine because, as he told her, “he feels so bad.” Now, Ben fills scraps of paper with scribbled notes which are revealed to be notes to the neighborhood murderer, saying that he loves him. Ben becomes a symbol of the love and understanding which are missing but which are so necessary in the world.
Joe Glassman, Regina’s father, is another pivotal character in the novel. He represents Regina’s...
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