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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
Since Chekhov is, like Shakespeare, in the public domain with no permission needed about how to present his work, we've seen our share of drastically reinterpreted productions of this second of his four masterpieces (The Seagull in 1896, Uncle Vanya in 1899, Three Sisters in 1901, The Cherry Orchard in 1904). But true to its mission of bringing classical plays to wider audiences, the Pearl's Uncle Vanya doesn't diddle with changing the original time frame.
Director Hal Brooks has brought this production in at a well-paced two hours and 20 minutes on a spare but effective set by Jason Simms. And though many translations in which the humor has been either under or over played, Brooks avoids going too far in either direction by using noted Chekhov scholar Paul Schmidt's translation that's rich in humor and contemporary flavored dialogue without altering the plot. This enables Brooks to steer his actors to play up the comic elements but without losing the melancholy despair that permeates their characters' lives. When the title character finally erupts into his impassioned outburst, it's clear why the play is tagged as a tragi-comedy.
The plot, in case this is your first Uncle Vanya, is quite simple. What's essentially a series of incidents, explodes in a climactic family brouhaha that involves financial and romantic upheavals, affords the entire cast plenty of opportunities for finely nuanced performances.
Alexander Serebriakov (Dominic Cuskern) and his beautiful, much younger second wife Yelena (Rachel Botchan) have returned to the family estate that belonged to his first wife. Sonya, his daughter (Michelle Beck) from that marriage and his brother-in-law Ivan Petrovich, a.k.a. Vanya (Chris Mixon) have uncomplainingly sent him most of the earnings from the estate though Sonya is its rightful heir.
Vanya and Sonya's painful realization that they've wasted years of their lives on a man who is as untalented as he is uncaring is the play's central emotional focus, the Professor and his beautiful young wife disrupt everything and everyone. He tops his constant demands for attention with a devastating announcement about his plans for the estate. What's more, both Vanya and Mikhail Astrov (Bradford Cover), the family friend and doctor summoned to tend to the Professor, fall in love with Yelena. But all these passions, including Sonya's for the doctor, are doomed.
Except for the luminous, tremendously affecting Michelle Beck's Sonya, and Brad Haeberlee as the minor character of Telegrin who adds a nice occasional musical touch, the key malcontents are portrayed by the Pearl's resident company members, with Robin Leslie Brown, another Pearl regular, providing tea and comfort as the devoted Marina.
Bradford Cover's doctor, making what must be the longest house call ever, is charismatic enough to make Sonya and Yelena's being smitten with him believable. And of course his passionate concern for his beloved endangered Russian forests adds an especially timely touch.
Chris Mixon's Vanya is convincingly enraged at the brother-in-law on whose behalf he feels he's wasted the best years of his life. His anguished reaction to the professor's selfish plans may well strike a chord with anyone unexpectedly dismissed from a job after years of devoted service. Mixon also has a good grasp on the humor of the gun toting episode. Yet, he also captures the poignancy of the scene in which he comes upon Yelena in Astrov's arms and in the heart-wrenching finale with Sonya.
The way the attractive Yelena entrapped herself in an unsatisfying May-December marriage typifies the lack of drive and spirit that was allowing a newer order to take hold in Russia. Rachel Botchan, who's been the romantic romantic lead in many Pearl productions is aptly cast as the lovely but lethargic object of Vanya and Astrov's affection. But it's Michelle Beck's Sonya who steals our heart. She's imbued with the innocence of youth but also the play's most mature and sympathetic character. Beck is touchingly exuberant when her stepmother offers to find out if there's any hope that Astrov might look beyond her being a plain girl whose only compliments have been that she has nice hair.
While the pompous Professor's impact on everyone around him is enormous, his role is quite minor. But Dominic Cuskern is fine with what he's been given. Another long-time Pearl resident actor, Carol Schultz, has an even smaller role as Mrs. Voinitsky, the Professor's unshakably devoted and admiring mother-in-law. In fact, given the trimness of the production, it almost feels as if the part has been cut. But then, that's what a resident acting company is all about, actors who aren't fixated on star roles, but in playing the right part for a particular production. sensitive to her being a plain girl whose only compliments are that she has beautiful hair.
While the scenery is unfussy and uncluttered with props, Barbara Bell's costumes are apt to the characters and period and add to the production's visual pleasures.
Classic plays like this give directors like the Pearl's current artistic director a chance to work with a satisfyingly large cast. However, Hal Brooks, like all of today's theater professionals, has proved himself more than able to adapt to the more economically viable solo play. To read his comments on the challenges of that genre, see my 2-part feature's second part Theater Pros (actors, playwrights, directors and critics) Talk About the Solo Play .
The Pearl's program is as usual chockful of enlightening background information such as Dramaturg Kate Farrington's "Deep Breath" essay and Emily Miller's "Time-Line on the Art of Uncle Vanya." For our own Chekhov backgrounder, wth links to previous productions by him that we've reviews, go here.