Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, May 2007
There are three kinds of people in the world: people who love Chekhov, people who hate Chekhov, and people who are afraid of Chekhov because he’s Russian and everyone says he is a “great playwright.”
I am a person who loves Chekhov. Whenever I attend a performance of his work, I am happy. I don’t know a lot about Anton Pavlovich Chekhov (1860-1904). Even though I have seen all of his major plays at least once in my life, I can’t really tell the difference between them. They are all full of trees and doctors and people who want to be somewhere other than where they are at that moment, and the moment after that, and the moment after that. But each play, each character is so real, so frail, so mortal, that I am immediately able to relate across the decades, across the cultures and enjoy them.
Daisy Walker’s production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, running through June 3 at Hubbard Hall, is my idea of perfect Chekhov. Half of that perfection is achieved through the usual strong cast and high production values at Hubbard Hall, and the other half is in the Hall itself, which is warm and wooden in its authentic 19th century way, and which envelops audience and actors alike in an intimate place of magic. The playing area is on the floor and on the stage with the audience seated on three sides, so you can always see audience as well as actors and, realistic as Chekhov appears to be, it is always obvious that this is only an illusion. No one is credited with lighting design, but I am sure that it wasn’t by accident that the same soft glow seemed to shine on the audience as well as the actors.
Chekhov called his plays comedies, a fact that drives the people who hate Chekhov and the people who are afraid of him wild. Chekhov’s plays are wildly funny, in a deeply tragic way. 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. So while the majority of the characters in Uncle Vanya spend a lot of time and energy telling you how miserable they are and why, remember that in itself is funny.
Uncle Vanya, published in 1899, is the only one of Chekhov’s plays that is a rewrite of an earlier work. In 1889 The Wood Demon was a failure for Chekhov, one that made him change the way thought about his life and art. The Wood Demon is rarely performed and I haven’t seen it, but from the title I assume that the central character was the tree-hugging doctor. The title of Uncle Vanya at first leads one to believe that Vanya is the central character in the revised work, but actually it is his niece, Sonya, the only person to whom he is “Uncle” Vanya, around whom the plot revolves.
Place is always very important in Chekhov’s plays, and here the place in question is the small country estate in Russia which Sonya has inherited from her late mother. Ever so much more than twenty, unmarried, and considered plain, Sonya (Laura Heidinger) runs the estate with her mother’s brother Vanya (Kevin McGuire) and a few old servants, of whom we meet two – Telegin (Doug Ryan), known as Waffles, and Marina or Nanny (Pat Reilly). Her grandmother, Vanya’s mother, Mrs. Voinitsky (Joan Warrender), lives with them. Sonya’s father, Serebriakov (Richard Howe), a retired professor of art who likes to be called “Your Excellency” and his very much younger second wife Yelena (Marin Langdon), have recently come to live there too, and the professor’s gout requires the almost constant attention of the local doctor Astrov (Robert Kropf).
Despite the fact that it is summer (the action of the play takes place between June and September) the household is suffering from the psychological claustrophobia inherent in all of Chekhov’s plays. People feel trapped by time, place, and circumstance. Love, lust, and ambition go unrequited. Vanya is having the ultimate mid-life crisis at 47 (which is not now and was not then, old). Sonya longs for Astrov who longs for Yelena who longs to long for something. Serebriakov cares for no one but himself. And little Waffles just wants to play his guitar and have a good plate of dumplings.
With the exception of Warrender, who seems to be playing at an entirely different energy level than the rest of the cast, each actor brings his or her character vividly to life. People who are afraid of Chekhov often imagine that the stage will be filled with angst-ridden Russian with impossibly long names who they will never be able to tell apart. With a cast of only eight, even with the endless parade of Russian patronymics and diminutives, it is easy to tell who is who and what makes them tick.
McGuire, with his white/blond hair all asunder, plays Vanya as a hopelessly appealing old lap dog. His eyes seem to be constantly half-filled with tears as he clings to the notion that he has wasted his life in service to others – to his late sister, to his niece, to his mother, to the estate, and, most galling of all, to the ungrateful and vainglorious Serebriakov.
Howe is very funny as the pompous wind-bag of an art imposter Serebriakov, but it bothered me that he was obviously too young for the role. Why was no effort made to make him look the age he was playing? That’s what they have make-up and wigs for. As it is Howe looks younger than McGuire, whose Vanya spends the entire play announcing how old he is and how he has wasted his entire 47 years and his life is over. If Serebriakov was married to Vanya’s sister, and if he is now retired from academia and suffering from gout, he would most likely be a good 10-15 years older than Vanya, not the same age or younger. Also, people keep saying that the 27-year-old Yelena has married such an elderly man, and yet, while Howe is obviously older than the dewy-fresh Langdon, together they do not remind one of J. Howard Marshall and Anna Nicole Smith, which I think was more Chekhov’s intent.
But it is Heidinger and Langdon who are at the center of this production. Langdon is impossibly young and beautiful in exactly that languid manner Chekhov describes. Dressed in gentle pastels – mermaid colors – Langdon’s Yelena has surrendered all sense of self to the moral-high ground of being the good and faithful wife to a man she does not love.
Heidinger says as much in her silent moments of watching, listening, and understanding her fate as she does in her lines. Her face is wonderfully expressive, as is her body. When Astrov so much as brushes past Sonya the electric thrill that the proximity of a lover brings is outwardly visible.
Ryan is sweet and effective as poor little Waffles, and Reilly is a staunch motherly presence with her endless offers of camomille tea and "a bite to eat. These two characters represent the average people, and because they do not have that layer of tragic icing, it is easy to see and enjoy the richly comic cake of Chekhov's writing and Ryan and Reilly's performances.
If Astrov was the “demon” of the earlier play’s title, then he was aptly named. He is a callous and foolish fellow, so self-absorbed that he is oblivious to the havoc he is wrecking on all sides. While he pontificates endless about the environment and how cutting down the forests is changing the world, he is clear-cutting through hearts and lives with equal carelessness, unable and unwilling to map the destruction he is leaving in his wake. Kropf plays him as a selfish monster for whom compassion is impossible. At the end, when Astrov postpones his departure for…what?...a vain idea that Sonya may suddenly declare her love for him?...I thought he would never leave.
That being said, the environmental rants that Chekhov has given to Astrov sound like the script for An Inconvenient Truth. Al Gore and Astrov should really get together for coffee sometime. That warnings about man’s blind waste and destruction of nature have been expressed this clearly and this publicly for this long without anyone taking action, is shameful.
Watching the play with my best friend, we looked at each other as the lights came up for intermission, and simultaneously expressed the feeling that the scene we had just witnessed between Sonya and Yelena represented a pretty good distillation of our heart-to-heart talks over the last quarter century: “I’m so happy. I’m so sad. I’m in love. I’m bored. I’m angry. I’m sorry. Let’s go shopping.” Okay, so Sonya and Yelena don’t go shopping, and my friend and I don’t have that weird stepmother/stepdaughter thing going on, but what is central here is that Chekhov knows how two women talk to one another. People who are afraid of Chekhov should take this story as proof positive that there is nothing to fear. A couple of white chicks talking are a couple of white chicks talking, whether they are in 19th century Russia or modern day America.
Local audiences have the unique opportunity to open and close their summers with productions of Uncle Vanya this year since Barrington Stage will present the play August 9-26 at the Union Street Main Stage. That is a proscenium house, so there will not be the chance for the splendid intimacy between actors and audience that Hubbard Hall affords. And annoyingly neither company has stated which translation they are using, an oversight that I consider shameful, so we cannot know whether we will be hearing the same words spoken*. But the chance to see this great work interpreted by two fine female directors (Barrington Stage founder and Artistic Director Julianne Boyd will be directing there) at two of the best theatre companies in the region is too good to pass up.
If you are a person who loves Chekhov, buy your tickets for Hubbard Hall and Barrington Stage now, and let’s start a Chekhov appreciation blog. If you are a person who is afraid of Chekhov, please give this production at Hubbard Hall a tumble, and remember to keep the cake in mind while you are looking at the icing. If you are a person who hates Chekhov, you should probably just stay home.
The Theatre Company at Hubbard Hall’s production of Uncle Vanya runs through June 3 at Hubbard Hall, 25 East Main Street in Cambridge, NY. Performances are May 10-12, 18, 19, 25 & 26 and June 1 & 2 at 8 p.m., May 13, 20, 27 & June 3 at 2 p.m. Individual tickets are $20 for Hubbard Hall members, $24 for non-members, and $15 for students. TCHH also offers a group sales rate of $10 per ticket for blocks of 10+ tickets reserved in advance by non-profit organizations. For information and reservations, call 518-677-2495.
* Mystery solved! “Walker uses Paul Schmidt's translation — a distinctly American approach that understands the rhythm and energy of American speech without ignoring the source and which, in the process, catches the human comedy at work at the heart of Chekhov's plays. I cannot imagine why any director — or teacher, for that matter — would want to use any Chekhov translations other than Schmidt's.” – Jeffrey Borak in his 5/19/07 review of this production in the Berkshire Eagle. And Barrington Stage has announced that they will also be using Schmidt's translation, so interested theatre-goers will be able to make a direct comparison between the two productions.
The show runs two and a half hours with one intermission and is suitable for ages 15 and up.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2007