In a production that captured the humanity that Chekhov found amusing, Uncle Vanya, as presented by Columbia University School of the Arts and November Theatre, moved at a clip supported by an excellent cast. Vanya is a play that might easily sink by taking too literally the many times its characters utter the word “bored.” This lively production, directed by Michael Scholar, Jr., instead illustrates how Chekhov’s characters draw energy from one another and, at least for a moment, grow beyond their isolated lives by being thrown together on a country estate.
Vanya and his niece Sonya are visited by Sonya’s father, Professor Serebyakov, and his young second wife, Yelena. Yelena is admired to the point of obsession by Vanya and the neighboring doctor, Astrov. Sonya is in love with the doctor. Yelena will have nothing to do with the two men, though she is more compelled by the doctor than Vanya. The professor launches his plan to sell the estate and is attacked by Vanya for squandering the property where Vanya and Sonya have worked for decades on behalf of the Professor’s upkeep. Vanya attempts to shoot the professor and misses twice. After this encounter the visitors leave and the estate re-calibrates to its normally low vibration.
The production was cast meticulously and for that Scholar must be given full credit. Timothy McCown Reynolds gives Astrov playful charm spiced with cynicism and alcoholic misbehavior. Elliott Mayer is an appealingly rumpled Vanya who is haunted by feelings of waste and uselessness while still managing to find wry humor in the character’s despair. Alana Rader is heartbreaking as she captures Sonya’s childlike soul and loving strength. Clara F. Pagone is a languidly glamorous Yelena who has the dignity to hold her ground with two insistent suitors. Howard Thoresen justifies the professor so well you wonder what all the fuss is. Even the supporting cast, headed by an exuberant Jon Peacock’s lovable Waffles, are well cast. This is not a production that ponderously slows the work down but rather moves the story with ease and a sense of how the characters’ heightened emotions are sparking the estate’s dusty rooms with energy.
If there are questions about this production it rests with some choices that were confusing. Scholar created a new character by physically embodying Vanya’s sister and Sonya’s mother, as if she is a visible ghost in the house. While a case could be made that this character is referred to in the script as an important beacon in Vanya and Sonya’s past, her physical presence is unnecessary and proves to be a distraction in some important moments. I wondered why the ghost had to take the bullet from Vanya’s gun and guide it off course. Perhaps in the small playing space the production felt no one could miss their target but the interference muddled a moment that has potential for humor, for that very reason.
There was a lack of focus on the relationship between Vanya and Sonya in this production. The last scene, where Sonya delivers one of Chekhov’s best known speeches of faith and endurance in the face of the dead end she and Vanya must come to terms with, was opened up with Rader center stage as if she were delivering her words to God and the universe. The moment was robbed of the loving intimacy Vanya and Sonya share and wasn’t helped by the placement of Vanya and Sonya’s work space so far upstage with the remaining cast scattered downstage.
Those points aside, the production was for the most part so well-conceived that it reminded me that Chekhov should be done much more. Like Vanya, we all want more than we have, we all have moments of dissatisfaction and humiliate ourselves with anti-social behavior. Chekhov, with his rich society of characters, lets us know that, though we may not speak so beautifully, we aren’t alone in our shortcomings.
Uncle Vanya, by Anton Chekhov Adapted by Annie Baker (Working with a literal translation by Margarita Shalina)
Directed by Michael Scholar, Jr.
Presented by Columbia University School of the Arts and November Theatre December 5-7
Hosted by Medicine Show Theatre
With Sharlene Hartman (Maria Vasilyevna), Elliott Mayer (Uncle Vanya), Clara F. Pagone (Yelena), Jon L. Peacock (Waffles), Alana Rader (Sonya), Timothy McCown Reynolds (Astrov), Howard Thoresen (Professor Serebryakov), Susan Wallack (Marina), Hugh Buller (Yefim)