Uncle Vanya: Chekhov With a Laugh

Uncle Vanya GuthrieIt is hard to imagine a Chekhov play where the audience gets to laugh in every scene, but Uncle Vanya at the Guthrie, in a version by Brian Friel and directed by Joe Dowling, does just that.
It’s a story of just two days in the life of what is in many ways a typical 19th century, lower nobility, family. A retired professor and his young second wife have come to live on his first wife’s estate, where his mother in law and brother in law still live, along with his daughter, her old nanny, and an impoverished land owner who now helps out. Everyone has their quirks, everyone is somehow misguided (particularly in love), and ultimately suffer from the inactivity and chaos (a very real dichotomy) caused by the arrival of the professor.
One of the main themes of the play is the importance of being active, of being productive, and what befalls man when he allows his talents to go (unused). To any Jewish audience member this will surely hit home, as we have been prodded from the moment we could crawl to be proactive and engaged and always studying something. There are no distinctly Jewish overtones, as is true of all of Chekhov, but there is no denying that what we see enacted in the play is exactly what our mothers warned us about – the degradation of family and society by the evil hand of idleness. The play also speaks to the modern audience through Astroff, the doctor, who is a great conservationist, who prides himself on preserving and growing forests and mourns over the rampant deforestation happening in Russia at the time – a very real issue to this day, everywhere in the world.
There is pathos-a-plenty via misguided and rejected love, as per the norm for Chekhov, but whereas in the original text the humor is dry, sarcastic and more sparse, Friel’s production fills every scene with moments which make you laugh out loud. The old tea and vodka pushing nanny is played brilliantly and hilariously by Barbara Kingsley. Telegin, the impoverished land-owner played by Jim Lichtscheidl, was a “non-entity” in the original text but is brought to light and life in this version. Vanya himself, played by Andrew Weems, takes his station to the extremes of emotion, which is at once tragic and funny – two contrary emotions between which he switches flawlessly.
From a strictly Chekhovian sense, the actors were more caricatures than characters. However this is vital to livening up what is an otherwise tedious and depressing play. What I found off-putting, however, was the contrast between speech and action, with the setting and costumes – the latter being classical and time appropriate, and the former more hysterical and often resembling buffoonery. There was also a real sense of “Acting” which prevented me from truly connecting with some of the characters. Astroff, the doctor, who is supposed to be passionate about nature, dejected by the tedium ad naseum of the medical profession, and who finally reveals his passion for Elena (the professor’s wife) fails, either by voice or presence, to make us believe in him. Sonya (the daughter), has a part more difficult than many will appreciate, as she must switch between the peacemaker, the enamored child, and the moral support of her family. And though I appreciate the difficulty, I must still say that the role was not conquered. Elena too, though her voice was that of a Petersburg woman, who fancies herself important for having studied at the conservatory and being from the capital, succeeds in contrasting herself from the others – but still remains in the realm of playing, rather than being, the role.
Tone and timber in the voice, to say nothing of presence, are what transport audiences into the world of a play. So if a number of actors sound like they are acting, that becomes impossible for the entirety of the play. This is particularly true for Chekhov, who wrote about ordinary people, in ordinary, and therefore often tragic life. It is therefore appropriate to note that the first successful performance of the play was put on, and played in, by “method acting” creator Constantin Stanislavsky himself. Method acting and Chekhov are inseparable. I would, however, see the aforementioned actors in a Shakespearean play any day of the week!
Having said that, if you like Chekhov, and are not a purist, you will enjoy this play. Truly, it will touch everyone in the audience, no matter their background, as it is about real people – who are as real now as they were 120 years ago. The talent of each and every actor on that stage is unquestionable, regardless of my reaction to some of the performances on opening night, so as is true of most theater, I foresee each night becoming better and better.
Be sure to see the play sometime before October 27th. You can find more information on the Guthrie’s website.
*TC Jewfolk received free tickets to ”Uncle Vanya” for the purpose of this review. The opinions expressed are those of the reviewer and have not been otherwise influenced.