October 28, 2018
Who needs another Uncle Vanya? Aren’t’ we done with this drama about a rundown estate in Russia and the depressed inhabitants? Evidently, it still thrills theater professionals and as a testament to its endurance, this year’s production of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya expertly directed by Richard Nelson, converted many more fans.
Seats on risers slide up either side of the rectangular performance area inviting audience members to walk around long wooden tables and chairs to their seats. The casual nature of the set by Jason Ardizzone-West is reflected in the overall direction of the play and for once, the compressed script translated by Nelson, Richard Pevear, and Larissa Volokhonsky flows through time without losing anything in translation.
Settled on an aging estate in the Russian countryside, the hard working family members are disrupted when sophisticated, urban relatives descend on the premises. Mundane lives are suddenly pitched into emotional extremes.
Uncle Vanya (a sensational Jay O. Sanders,) a bit of a romantic, devotes his time assisting his niece Sonya (Yvonne Woods) in the management of the family estate. Despite her outward shyness and melancholia, Sonya secretly dreams of marrying Dr. Astrov (Jesse Pennington) – a socially conscientious doctor who drinks and thinks too much. Money earned from the estate, under Vanya's and Sonya' supervision, supports the father’s and stepmother’s comparatively lavish lifestyle in the city.
When Sonya’s father the professor (John DeVries) and his elegant wife, Elena (Celeste Arias) visit for a few weeks, the household’s routine is upended. At first, the houseguests are a wonderful divergence, but their demands become suffocating. In the midst of this family conflict, love interests entangle Sonya, Elena, Vanya and the doctor—a socially conscientious man who drinks and thinks too much. Their anguished feelings soar, but never mate.
In addition to the chaotic flirtations, the elderly and unappealingly cranky professor announces his intention to sell the estate. Little thought is given to anyone other than himself. This unleashes volatile reactions that nearly destroy the family.
Evidently, Nelson takes advice from a letter to Chekhov's wife on the "theory of acting" saying, “Suffering should be expressed as in life itself.” That’s precisely the beauty of this ode to Uncle Vanya. From the organization of the stage space, to the naturalness of the actors, the audience becomes a part of the extended family. Handily aided by a strong cast, Nelson succeeds in convincing us that we are eavesdropping on a very common family of uncommon dimensions.
EYE ON THE ARTS, NY . -- Celia Ipiotis