The 2013-2014 season at the Guthrie Theater‘s Wurtele Thrust Stage opens with a production of the Russian classic Uncle Vanya by Anton Chekhov. It’s a fairly safe bet, since the play has enjoyed considerable popularity and critical acclaim since it first debuted in Moscow in 1899. This is with good reason; Chekhov‘s story is comic enough to be entertaining, and dramatic enough to be thought-provoking, and the Guthrie‘s production boasts a strong cast and high production values. A safe bet, indeed. Is this a criticism on my part? Sort of yes, sort of no. Yes, I think it lacks imagination and boldness, and falls easily into the pattern of performing well-established plays by white men. But at the same time, no, because, as the packed house and standing ovation on Opening Night indicate, there is clearly an audience for this kind of performance.
Anton Chekhov has oft been hailed as the father of modern drama, focusing on everyday existence and emotion rather than large series of events. Uncle Vanya is no tale of great intrigue, mystery, or love. On the contrary, it focuses on the daily frustrations of a group of people who seem to be bored and unhappy with life in general. Uncle Vanya himself is an older man who has spent most of his life managing the family estate, so as to support the upper-class lifestyle of Alexander, the husband of his late sister. Along with him are his mother, an aging woman who cares most about women’s rights, his hardworking and equally unhappy niece Sonya, and the elderly nanny, Marina, whose main concern seems to be that everyone has enough to drink. They are joined by regular visitor, local doctor Mikhail, and over the course of the summer, by Alexander and his new, much-younger wife, Elena. Although there are cases of unrequited love, shattered dreams, and fury, they are, for the most part, quieter, more subdued passions.
Director Joe Dowling chose to mount a production based on Irish playwright Brian Friel‘s translation and adaptation of Chekhov’s script. Friel’s version has often been lauded as making the play more accessible to contemporary, non-Russian audiences, as well as bringing out the comic aspects of the play, adding his own lines here and there, and, for example, turning what was originally a background character with minimal lines into the play’s main source of comic relief in the form of impoverished hanger-on Ilya “Waffles” Telegin (played by a delightfully deadpan Jim Lichtscheidl). Friel’s version also emphasizes some themes that feel particularly relevant to today’s political and social situation — climate change, upper-class privilege, and unemployment, for example. However, while Friel’s version certainly makes the play more amusing and more contemporary, these changes also create a divide between what we see on stage and Chekhov’s original play. Thus, the themes sometimes don’t flow together as well as they might have; the class division between the titular Uncle Vanya and his brother-in-law Alexander becomes less clear, for example, and Vanya’s ennui and distress at his seemingly wasted life instead come across as grumpiness and laziness until well into the second act. Still, the near-constant titter of laughter that rippled through the theater during the show suggests that these changes may be for the better, as far as the audience is concerned.
Michael Hoover‘s clever and detailed set provides the background for a very solid production. The characters are well-cast and well-acted. John Catron‘s passionate, vodka-soaked doctor expounds upon his concerns about climate change, and is admired openly and fully by Emily Gunyou Halaas’ character Sonya, who is unhappy with her lot in life, but resigned to make peace in the family and to endure the hardships put in her way. Valeri Mudek plays Alexander’s much younger, much more attractive wife, Elena, who seems at first vapid and
snooty, but eventually opens up to reveal, as the doctor calls her, “a very complicated woman”. Barbara Kingsley as elderly nurse Marina and Melissa Hart as nearly-deaf matriarch Maria Voynitsky are delightful and quirky, while Robert Dorfman‘s retired professor Alexander Serebryakov is the clueless, self-pitying oaf you love to loathe. But ultimately, the show is stolen by Andrew Weems‘ take on the eponymous Vanya Voynitsky. Self-pitying, frustrated with the world, pathetic in his love for Elena, alarming in his anger, Vanya may not be sympathetic from the get-go, but he is always captivating.
Overall, Uncle Vanya is worth seeing, and makes for a fun, classic night out at the theater.
Uncle Vanya by Anton Chekhov in a version by Brian Friel. September 14 – October 27 at the Gutherie Theater’s Wurtele Thrust Stage 818 South 2nd Street, Minneapolis, MN 55415. Tickets $29-71 at Guthrie Box Office: 612.377.2224, toll-free 877.44.STAGE, 612.225.6244 (Group Sales) and online at www.guthrietheater.org.