by Gail M. Burns, August 2007
One of the trickiest things about being a theatre critic is having to review different productions of the same play in close succession, particularly if the first one you see really moves you. I was clear in my review of the Hubbard Hall production of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya in May that I considered it as close to perfection as possible. It is one of those productions, out of the hundreds and hundreds that I have seen, which will stay with me always. While the Barrington Stage production, directed by Julianne Boyd is very good, and uses the same excellent translation by Paul Schmidt, it will never take the place of Daisy Walker’s staging in my heart.
However this is the production of Uncle Vanya that is available to you to see right now, and I would encourage you to do so. It has its flaws, notably the woefully miscast Keira Naughton in the pivotal role of Sonya, but it also has so much to recommend it that I urge you to go. There is never a bad time to see Chekhov, and Barrington Stage should be applauded on its first effort to bring this author to their stage.
In May I explained Chekhov’s use of comedy (and he did call his plays comedies) and tragedy using the analogy of a frosted cake: “Think of the tragedy as the icing on a cake of comedy. The cake is what supports the icing and gives it shape and substance. When you look at the outside, you see the icing, but if I asked you what it was you wouldn’t tell me it was icing, you would tell me it was cake.”
Boyd turns my analogy on its ear. Her Uncle Vanya uses the tragedy as the cake and the comedy as the icing. She and her able cast get a lot of genuine laughs in this production, but the tragedy is always there, lending the comedy support. For instance, one of the biggest laughs in the performance I saw came at the end of Act III when Vanya is trying to shoot and kill the Professor. What’s so funny about attempted murder, you ask? Well, go and see. And when you do you will realize that you wouldn’t be laughing so hard if every single character on the stage wasn’t in the throes of the deepest misery.
While the title of this play might lead you to believe that Vanya (Jack Gilpin) is the central character, many people believe that it is actually his niece, Sonya (Naughton), on whom the story turns – which is why, although Gilpin is absolutely marvelous, this production feels lopsided. Naughton is a good actress, but this is not her role. She is unable to play Sonya’s deep tragedy and unable to project the image of a plain woman. I am not saying that the actress who plays Sonya needs to be unattractive, I am saying that she needs to be able to comport herself like woman who believes that she is, and Naughton can’t. There is always a twinkle in her eye that conveys a confidence that a woman like Sonya would never have. Her Sonya is quite cheerful, even turning a cartwheel for sheer joy at one point.
But Naughton does try and she does clearly convey the part of Sonya who is the sane one in the family, the dutiful one, the one who does it all without complaining, and that makes her final monologue, where Sonya tells Vanya of her firm belief that they will have peace and rest in the next life, authentic and moving.
Since this cannot be Sonya’s play, let it be Vanya’s. Gilpin captures all the tragedy of this empty man for whom genuine personal accomplishment is always just out of reach. In a recent interview with Berkshire Eagle critic Jeffrey Borak he made the following remarks: "The range and degree of life that coarses (sic) through this character is what you go into [show] business to do. I feel lucky and privileged to take a whack at this role…This play constantly surprises you in its observation of joy and sorrow and laughter. It's a drink of cold water to a parched throat. It refreshes you for life."
It is no wonder with enthusiasm and insight like that that Gilpin provides a dynamic center to this production. This is his first professional encounter with Chekhov and it is such a success that I hope he has a chance to perform in many more of this master playwright’s works in coming years.
The other two central characters in the play are Astrov (Mark L. Montgomery), the local doctor, and Yelena (Heidi Armbruster), the 27-year-old second wife to Sonya’s elderly father, the Professor (Kenneth Tigar). Sonya harbors a secret and unrequited love for Astrov, who is a self-absorbed monster unfit to touch the hem of her garment. Montgomery makes this Astrov every bit as callous as he is written, while delivering his shockingly current monologues on environmental issues with verve.
Tigar is equally monstrous, and hilarious, as the pompous Professor, whose arrival has upset the very fabric of life on this quiet country estate. While he keeps everyone on edge 24/7 with his demands for food and medical attention, Yelena has drawn every man Sonya cares about into her orbit. Vanya adores her, Astrov desires her, and Sonya’s own father actually possesses her, but Yelena remains stubbornly wrapped in her own ennui. Armbruster is a very, very beautiful Yelena, but I felt she related much better to the men than to Naughton’s Sonya, and I had been looking forward to the “girl talk” scene between stepmother and stepdaughter which concludes Act II.
Patricia Conolly is Marina, the faithful old “Nanny” on the estate, and Robert Grossman is Telegin, aka Waffles, an elderly servant. Both are endearing and aid in the illusion that we really are in 19th century Russia, a trick because Schmidt’s translation is so very modern and American, and Chekhov’s characters are so vibrantly alive that it is only the sets, with their candles and kerosene lamps, and the costumes that remind us where all this is actually taking place.
Grossman, whose program bio bills him as an “Urban folk-singer-guitarist-composer since age 16” (and he is considerably older than that now) provides marvelous musical interludes of guitar music before and between the action. I assume that it is also Grossman we hear playing in the recorded musical segments. There should be a moment built in for the audience to give his musical contributions a special round of applause. And while the music sounds quite authentically Russian I see that a credit is given to Matthew M. Nelson for sound design and original music. Whatever its source, the music enhances the sense of time and place, and Grossman’s musicianship is unquestionable.
I have yet to see a satisfactory performance by an actress in the role of Vanya’s mother Maria. She is something of an enigma as written, lending little support to her son and granddaughter in their efforts to keep the estate running. Here Alain Warren Zachary looks lovely and ponders her feminist pamphlets with icy serenity while everyone else’s world is imploding around her. Just who IS this woman?? I must get a hold of Schmidt’s translation, and a few others, and ponder her raison d’être.
Karl Eigsti has designed a simple and effective set which replicates that warm yellow glow that so endeared me to the Hubbard Hall production and which I thought was partially due to the performance space itself. There is may have been, but here it is cleverly crafted with color and Scott Pinkney’s lighting.
The women’s costumes are very believable and historically accurate, but the men’s looked suspiciously modern. There IS a difference between a man’s suit of 1890’s Russia and a 20th century American one.
People are wary of Chekhov because he is Russian, because his work is considered “classic,” because they are afraid that productions of his plays will be long and depressing and hard to follow. Nothing could be further from the truth. As we exited the theatre my companion turned to me and said, “I know those people.” Chekhov’s great gift was in creating characters who, although they lived in a time and place very different from the here and now, are so typically human that we can relate to them instantly.
Boyd’s production is lively, poignant, and often very funny. The show runs a compact two and a half hours with an intermission in which to stretch your legs. If you are already a Chekhov fan this is certainly a production worth seeing. If you have never seen a Chekhov play before, this would be a good place to start. Yes, it is possible you will discover you are one of those people who just doesn’t cotton up to Chekhov, but you also might discover a new kindred spirit in this Russian master. Its worth a gamble!
The Barrington Stage Company production of Uncle Vanya runs through August 26 at their Main Stage theatre, 30 Union Street in Pittsfield. The show runs two and a half hours with one intermission and is suitable for ages 14 and up (younger children will find Chekhov too wordy). For tickets, call the box office at (413) 236-8888 (Pittsfield); (413) 528-8888 (South County) or visit www.barringtonstageco.org.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2007