By Anton Chekhov
Adapted by Emily Mann
Directed by Timothy Near
California Shakespeare Theater
August 6-31, 2008
Yes and no, da and nyet: Chekhov’s characters always seem to have a mixed response to their lives. But there is no ambiguity surrounding CalShakes current production of “Uncle Vanya.” It is absorbing, entertaining; simply terrific from beginning to end. Directed by San Jose Rep head Timothy Near, with a cast including some of the Bay Area’s finest character actors, it is a romp through the Russian countryside that elicits both laughter and tears.
Subtitled “Scenes From a Country Life,” “Uncle Vanya” is just that. And if a country life is boring and sometimes ridiculous, it also has some pretty violent passions percolating underneath the surface. People despair, drink too much, fall in love with all the wrong people and then go back to work. What does it all mean? According to Chekhov, who was contemporary with Frederick Nietzsche and just a little younger than Dostoyevski, the two ultimate nihilists of his day, not a whole lot. But, while those two worthy gentlemen took a gloomy view of the human condition, Chekhov found it faintly absurd. That’s why his plays are both tragic and comic. The CalShakes production handles this dichotomy with a sure hand.
Chekhov’s characters tend to be depressed, but not necessarily depressing. Especially in this play, their lives are vacant, devoid of love and meaning and, especially in this play, the author thought this was very funny. Although his people and situations look pretty tragic, he thought he was writing comedies. Emily Mann’s excellent adaptation and Near’s deft direction comes closer to the author’s intention than any “Vanya” this writer has seen. It is funny – and I cried at the end.
With the blue sky above and the brown and green of the Orinda hills in the background, Eric Flatmo’s country dacha set blended right into nature. Appropriate, since one of the principal characters, Dr. Astrov, when he is not out trying to save the serfs from typhus and malaria, is planting trees in a passionate attempt to save the planet from man’s abuses (this hitting a curiously contemporaneous note with the California audience). Astrov, masterfully portrayed by Andy Murray, is one of two powerhouse performances that anchor this production. The other is the title character, painted with a delicate brush that catches all of his passion and weakness by Dan Hiatt.
Both men are in love with the beautiful, aggressively idle Yelena (a genuinely lovely Sarah Grace Wilson) but neither of them can have her. She is the wife of the much-older Professor (James Carpenter) who lives off the proceeds of the property that once belonged to his dead first wife. Vanya and the Professor’s daughter Sonya (Annie Purcell) work the farm from dawn to dusk, keeping next to nothing for themselves. Sonya, who is as plain as Yelena is beautiful, is in love with Dr. Astrov, just to complicate things.
Rounding out this merry band are a trio of minor characters who are fleshed-out with a few master strokes, both of writing and acting. Howard Swain, who seems to be making a career out of brilliant buffoonery of late, is Waffles, an impoverished landowner who also lives on the estate (and off the sweat of Vanya’s brow). Joan Mankin is the professor’s morose mother-in-law who adores him and ignores Vanya, her real son. Finally, Barbara Oliver, as the old peasant nanny, speaks in the voice of plain reason and passes some nice cups of tea around when the going gets rough.