Uncle Vanya, by Anton Chekhov, adapted by Annie Baker working with a literal translation by Margariata Shalina. Directed by Mike Donahue. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
Christopher Donahue, Barbara Lloyd, Cass Morgan, Kathleen McElfresh, Jeanine Serralles, Liam Craig, Munson Hicks; photo: Tim Fort
"She's just reeling with boredom."
When there is so much talent on a stage and the stage is so unstable there are options. One option is to forego "concepts" and deal with just the talent. The other is to stick with the "new idea" and sacrifice the talent to that idea. What has happened to "Uncle Vanya" on the stage at the Weston Playhouse is much more the latter than the former. It's a pity, too. I would cry all the way to Moscow, but I'm not headed in that direction and neither are any of the characters offered in this modernized script by Annie Baker.
Weston Playhouse Theatre Company has set their edition of this play in Vermont which is where the theater is located. Their education packet emphasizes this. So does their press release which reads, in part, "In an interesting spin, the Weston production is set in contemporary Vermont. . .In adapting it [Baker] said her goal was to create a version that sounds to our contemporary American ears they way the play sounded to Russian ears during the play's first production in the provinces in 1898." She has succeeded in that goal and that is part of the problem with the production.
For the second time this season a company has made this sort of transition in a play and for the second time this season it almost works. Almost, but not quite. Shakespeare and Company moved "A Midsummer Night's Dream" to New Orleans in the 1930s. It was fun to watch and hear but every reference to Athens jarred on the ear and stopped the play from being honest and believable. We were in the woods outside of N'awlins, not Athens and we knew it, but we were shaken from that theatrical reality by the stoic allegiance to a word. In this "Vanya," set in modern-day rural Vermont, the characters were going to Krachow, to Moscow, to a dacha in Finland - not an easy commute from Vermont, especially not in this age of Russian alienation. It just flew in the face of reality and removed us from the play because we could no longer buy what the characters were selling.
These are easy fixes, folks. Say Boston instead of Moscow; say Dorset instead of Finland. Chekhov won't mind. Ms. Baker won't mind. Preserve the reality of the play within the language of the production.
In the same press release the company quotes the director, Mike Donahue: "...the design will be evocative and raw with a focus on the text, the actors and their relationship to the space/the audience...we want the actors and audience alike to feel as if they are breathing the same air, suspended on the same breath." Instead what he and his designers have offered us is a stage that is exposing its practical aspects to an audience that doesn't care about how lights are hung or furniture is stored. Everything we will see in use is visible from the moment we enter the theatre. We are telescoped from scene to scene through a concept that prevents any illusion of theatrical mystery. I don't mind visible set changes, but I do find watching chairs and couches and tables being moved from those back walls and corners into place and I do mind a picture being hung in front of me that is never used and cannot be seen in its placement on a stage column stage right that only faces its match stage left. What's the point?
Now the actors. Campbell Scott plays Astrov, the aging local doctor, an alcoholic who finds love too late and in the wrong place. His soft delivery of lines and his passionate regard for life are two brilliant choices for the role. I believed him every second he was on stage. He is the single greatest asset to this production. His real-life wife, Kathleen McElfresh, plays Yelena, the object of his affections in the play. She has a sensual ease that is remarkable, particularly in a costume that might make sense on a hot summer night in Vermont (designed by Anya Klepikov whose work throughout is fine) in 2014. McElfresh plays well with others, men and women, in this production and that was a nice fix for a difficult role.
Liam Craig is a very American Vanya, easy to understand and in Baker's edition of the play, able to make us realize all of the convoluted history of this family drama without faltering. His performance is fine. Absolutely fine, but as in so many other productions, we lose the title character for a while and that is not his fault; the fault is inthe writing. Still he was better than most I've seen in keeping the focus where it should be.
As his neice, Sonya, trapped into a dim life in a large set of rooms - I believe 26 rooms are indicated - Jeanine Serralles turns in one of the best performances ever of this complicated role. She is a mature young woman, intelligent and sharp, who lives through the period of this play on the edge of her sexually charged nerves. Serralles conveys this with movement and voice and she does it superbly. As her father, Serebryakov, Munson Hicks adds one more fascinating character to his repertoire of excellent performances. The rest of the company do what is asked of them and do it nicely. A group of talented players in a production that fights them all the way.
Having seen the company's earlier production of Christopher Durang's version of Vanya - set in Bucks County, PA - I was hoping for something more traditional to offset that show. Instead we have a second new setting, more faithful to the original perhaps but less successful in making its modern-day transition. If you haven't seen "Uncle Vanya" before, forget everything I've written and go see a superb company of actors do the play and don't think about Vermont at all. It's the only way to get through it without getting angry about it. If you know and love this play, try to be tolerant.
Campbell Scott and Liam Craig; photo: Tim Fort
Jeanine Serralles and Liam Craig; photo: Tim Fort
Uncle Vanya plays at the Weston Playhouse at 12 Park Street in Weston, Vermont through September 6. For information and tickets call the box office at 802-824-5288 or go on line at www.westonplayhouse.org.