The Guthrie Theater is plunged into the waste howling wilderness. It is the final scene in Anton Chekhov's ''The Sea Gull,'' and Romanian director Lucian Pintilie has brought us to the chilling expanse that surrounds this work, like an island in the void. The play's ghostly imagery has buffeted and unsettled the audience.
Finally, with all the theater's special effects cranked up to their fullest, we are looking into an animal terror.
This is the most effective moment in a ''Sea Gull'' that has been reframed and splashed with burning colors. It is also a production that, in its inner scenes, remains strangely conservative. Pintilie has mounted a Chekhov that will offend purists of both extremes. Traditionalists will complain that it violates the text, and modernists will argue that it is too unadventurous in this violation.
Inadvertently, he has also created a metaphor for the dilemma which has, in recent times, faced the regional theater that has the highest public profile and the longest claim to the nation's attention - the august Guthrie.
Backstage, beneath the theater's businesslike surface, a furor has been brewing over the present and future direction of the institution. For years, the Guthrie has been caught between the longing to fulfill its mission as the closest thing the United States has to a national theater and the need to keep the folks in Minnesota happy. In recent years, this has meant a struggle between demands for daring, experimental theater and the public appetite for more traditional fare.
It is a quandary that faces theaters across the country; but the struggle takes on a heightened drama in the fishbowl existence of the Guthrie - with that theater's long history and its huge financial stakes hanging in the balance.
In recent times, there have been efforts to break away from the confinements of the Guthrie's well-deserved reputation for stodginess and predictability by way of established works, daringly mounted. A season mounted three years ago by Alvin Epstein, then artistic director, took some great creative risks and turned off large numbers of subscribers in the process.
Two seasons ago, the Guthrie turned to the brilliant, visionary talents of director Liviu Ciulei (Leave'-you Choo'-lay). Trained as an architect but born to be a theatrical creator, Ciulei had moved through scenic design, acting, and directing in his native Romania, eventually taking over and transforming the Bulandra Theater of that country, helping to midwife the talents of such notable theatrical revolutionaries as Andre Serban, and going on to a trail-blazing international career.
As artistic director, Ciulei put up an opening season that brought rave reviews from national and local critics. His own production of Shakespeare's ''The Tempest,'' complete with a blood-filled moat - as well as director Richard Foreman's version of Moliere's ''Don Juan'' - set fire to the critical imagination.
If the artistic geniuses at the Guthrie were basking in the warm glow of critical praise, the business people found themselves out in the legendary Minnesota cold. Ciulei's vision turned off Minneapolis theatergoers as much as it inspired national critics. The net deficit by his second season had mounted to $632,000, more than the total budget of most regional theaters. And the management was not long in making its frigid feelings felt.
Drastic moves were made: (1) the theater divested itself of the last vestiges of its resident acting company; (2) it moved out of a rotating repertory and did plays in straight runs; and (3), most important, demands were made for a more accessible, financially viable string of plays.
The result has been a season this year that has included a relatively tame ''Threepenny Opera'' and a straight Broadway-style ''Guys and Dolls,'' which played to over 90 percent capacity and grossed $1,143,530.
But while the Guthrie is, for the moment, operating in the black, it faces a second-half season that is tough financially. It has also down brought the ire of many national critics and regional theater figures upon it for, in effect, selling out. ''There's tarnish on the Guthrie's reputation,'' one critic wrote recently. ''And hardly anyone thinks of Minneapolis anymore as the gleaming epicenter of American theater.''
Such critics may have some fellow travelers inside the Guthrie. Ciulei himself told the New York Times, ''There is a danger of allowing artistic product to take second place to an institution.''
The responsible party in the current changes, according to many national observers, is managing director Donald Schoenbaum, a veteran of regional theaters who came to the Guthrie 18 years ago from the Trinity Square Repertory Theatre in Providence, R.I. Schoenbaum takes the criticism in stride, although it gets his hackles up somewhat at the unfairness of it all.
''People don't realize we have a 1,441-seat theater, the biggest nonprofit house in the country,'' he argues, sitting in his windowless office. ''Still, we've been taking a lot of risks. 'Peer Gynt' [Liviu Ciulei's five-hour extravaganza of the sprawling Ibsen masterpiece] was an enormous undertaking. . . . But you can't do that eight times a season.''
Schoenbaum points out, with some justification, that the Guthrie is held up to an unfair standard, mentioning the obvious box office draws put up by other regional companies and complaining, ''When we do it, it's a (target for) criticism.''
He adds that the company's key financial supporters would probably lose interest if the Guthrie's programming ''went soft.'' And he argues that the Guthrie is finding a comfortable middle ground between the avant-garde and more popular fare.
Fifteen feet away from Schoenbaum's ledger in another windowless office, Liviu Ciulei is on the telephone arguing heatedly in Romanian with Lucian Pintilie over some last-minute opening-night ''crisis.''
Ciulei's wide Central European face is graced with searching, almost tender eyes; and as he talks he fixes these eyes on the middle distance from time to time, as if looking for a way out. ''This is my nightmare,'' he says, hanging up , and talking in general about his tenure at the Guthrie. ''I could have done better, if only I could have shaped the realities certain ways. But the realities are sometimes stronger than your intentions.''
One reality was the need to mount a season this year that Ciulei himself admits he was not pleased with. (Next year's lineup comes closer to his personal vision, he says.) Another was having to give up the repertory company and losing ''the whole chemistry of who you bring together, . . . their osmosis together.''
He says the artistic director's mission is ''to develop a credo, a spirit, a direction of the company . . . and, in the end, a style.'' The Guthrie's current mission, as Ciulei articulates it, is ''to expose the community to what today's art means, not to deprive them of the information about the ways culture shapes . . . the history and soul . . . of the world.''
Ciulei remains doggedly optimistic about his ability to accomplish this goal. He holds out the hope that he will attract the type of young student audience he painstakingly acquired in Romania.
Lucian Pintilie's production of ''The Sea Gull,'' (through Nov. 20) which has earned mixed reviews, is itself a mixture of forces and attitudes toward the material. Pintilie begins this version with the play's penultimate scene, a move that is both daring and brilliant. In the new context, the beginning of the play takes on an urgency that continues through the end of the first act. The grace with which the event turns in upon itself carries you compellingly into the material.
Somewhere early in Act II, however, in a scene that lies as lumpy and lifeless as the dead sea gull on the stage, the production settles into an ordinariness and an almost stodgy predictability. It never really regains momentum until the final scene, when Pintilie mounts a series of effects that hold an unearthly terror. For a blinding moment, the Guthrie turns cold and unbearable, and Pintilie's second-act staleness redeems itself.
Whether it also recaptures some of the Guthrie's lost glory and builds new business is another question.
Just before the play began on opening night, a local woman behind me informed another, sitting two rows away, that their mutual friend Francie ''decided to stay home and watch 'Dallas.' '' The big question is: Will those two women convince Francie that she made a mistake, that she should leave her cozy TV room and brave the blowing cold of a Minnesota winter for an evening of experimental theater at the Guthrie?
The answer will probably do more to shape the future of the country's most visible regional theater than any other force.