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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
While I've never quite settled on which of the four jewels in Chekhov's crown is my favorite, my heart probably goes out most to Vanya and his niece Sofya (a.k.a. Sonya), who could make Astrov happy if only this ahead-of-his-time environmentalist could respond to her inner beauty with the passion he feels for his beloved forest. Each new interpretation of these characters and the unhappy May-December couple whose presence has such a strong effect on all of them offers new potential for imaginative staging and performances— and for bringing out the comedy that accentuates the tragedy of coming smack up against time's inevitable passing accompanied by shattered hopes and dreams.
Even if a production doesn't live up to one's expectations 100%, Uncle Vanya is one of those plays that continues to grow on one so that is affective even when less than perfect. Denis O'Hare's extremely idiosyncratic performance is intriguing even if it at times pushes the comedic envelope a bit too hard. Though his interpretation takes some getting used to it does catch fire, especially when he expresses his disgust with his brother-in-law and himself, a disgust that in his final big scene explodes into impotent rage that pulls us into his dark vision of the self-inflicted life sentence of dreary, unfulfilling days — a fate which when finally embraced by the gentle Sofya is sheer poetry in the Rocamora translation.
Unfortunately, some of Rocamora's finely tuned text falls victim to director Austin Pendleton's frequently positioning the actors without any regard for the audience and encouraging a too conversational tone. Pendleton knows his Chekhov, having himself played Vanya, but his direction is at times as inconsiderate of the audience as the egotistical Professor's demands for tea and sympathy in the middle of the night.
Santo Loquasto, who has designed two previous production of this play (one for Pendleton at the Willimastown Theatre Festival) and usually delivers beautiful and completely appropriate sets, hasn't helped matters with an open wooden structure that aims to create the inside and outside locales mainly through different height levels. Interesting. But impractical. Maybe if this were a deconstructed Chekhov (shades of Ivo van Hove's high concept classics at New York Theater Workshop) and in a different space this would work. As it is, the set doesn't fulfill Loquasto's aim and presents sight and sound difficulties for anyone unfortunate enough to have seats in the thrust sections (especially the one on the furthest side). This design also fails to give us enough of a sense of the outdoors that's very much part of the relationship between the estate's interior and exterior.
George Morfogen, an actor who seems to fit whatever assignment he's given, here plays the professor of limited intellectual gifts and overwhelming selfishness. What's most interesting about this character, no matter who plays him, is that though he so strongly affects everyone's emotional state, romantic feelings and even their financial situation, his stage time is limited; consequently the smallness of the role never fails to surprise. Delphi Harrington as Voynitskaya, the woman who puts her son-in-law (the Professor) before her son, is another influential but surprisingly minor player. She is so regally distant and silent that it almost seems as if some of her dialogue has been cut. But you don't need a big role to make a strong impression, as do Louis Zorich, the impoverished landowner Telegin who has taken up residence on the Serebryakov estate and Cyrilla Baer as the old nanny. Both are the epitome of the characters who lend color and, well, Russian-ness, to Chekhov's plays.
As for the younger and star players. . . Maggie Gyllenhaal not only looks stunning in Suzi Benzinger's costumes but plays Yelena with exquisite ennui. She also delivers her lines with admirable clarity. Peter Saarsgard's Astrov may not look like a man who's aged visibly and is teetering on the brink of alcoholism, but somehow his being trim and quite attractive, makes Yelena's and Sofya's attraction to him most convincing. His passion for Yelena turns him as wild as Vanya, leading him to neglect his duties and make what must surely be the longest house call on record.
Pendleton's major failure as the play's helmer is that he hasn't guided Mamie Gummer to project her voice. The too conversational tone encouraged for all is in Gummer's case a consistent whisper that turns the audience into eavesdroppers who have to strain to hear her even when just a few rows away. With her blonde hair pulled back into a tight, spinster-ish knot Gummer, who looks a lot like her mom (Meryl Streep), does convey Sofyia's unrequited love for Astrov convincing enough to make your heart break for her when her gorgeous stepmother thoughlessly compliments her appearance with "You have lovely hair."
To sum up, O'Hare's quirks do grow into a touching Vanya. Gyllenhaal and Saaskard's Yelena and Astrov contribute a refreshing sensual aura. And so, despite some of the shortcomings of Mr. Pendleton's direction and Mr. Loquato's set, the enduring power of Chekhov's play carries the day.
For more about Chekhov and links to other reviews of his plays, including various productions of Uncle Vanya, see our Chekhov backgrounder