by Lynn on May 18, 2016

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Courthouse Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.

Written by Anton Chekhov
Adapted by Annie Baker
Working with a literal translation by Margarita Shalina and the original Russian text
Directed by Jackie Maxwell
Designed by Sue LePage
Lighting by Rebecca Picherack
Original music by Paul Sportelli
Cast: Neil Barclay
Donna Belleville
Kate Besworth
James Daly
Sharry Flett
Marla McLean
Patrick McManus
Peter Millard
Moya O’Connell
David Schurmann

A production full of heart and heartache done with exquisite care.

The Story. You know how it is when your whole household is disrupted by company who just don’t know when to leave? That’s how it is for Uncle Vanya, his niece Sonya and the various servants in the house. Ordinarily Uncle Vanya and Sonya would be managing the estate on which they live, doing accounts, ordering supplies etc., but since Serebryakov and his much younger second wife Yelena have arrived for a visit, no work has been done. As Marina, an elderly servant says, since Serebryakov and Yelena have come the samovar is always on and meals are not served at reasonable hours.

Swirling around the visiting couple is a whole lot of angst, heartache, sexual attraction and unhappiness. Vanya pines for Yelena but she does not return the feelings. Because Serebryakov is elderly he requires frequent visits from Dr. Astrov, a family friend. Sonya is in love with Dr. Astrov and has been for six years but he does not return the affection. He has been visiting the estate very often, not just to minster to Serebryakov, but because he’s attracted to Yelena and she’s attracted to him. Astrov is a man keenly attached to the land around him. He is a conservationist; a historian of how the area around them looked 100 years ago and has charted the decline of the wildlife and vegetation.

Serebryakov is Sonya’s father from his first marriage. Sonya inherited the estate from her mother, but I suppose in a Russian patriarchy the father assumes ownership. In any case Sonya and Vanya oversee the place. Vanya hates Serebryakov because he’s a pompous professor, a blowhard who Vanya thinks knows nothing and writes reams about nothing as a result. Vanya also hates Serebryakov because his sister was Serebryakov’s first wife, and Vanya thinks he was a bad husband and perhaps responsible for his sister’s death.

Emotions run high and eventually boil over when one of the characters tries to shoot another character and misses, twice.

Welcome to Chekhov land. This is what comes of living in a country with too little sunshine.

The Production. Director Jackie Maxwell has created an intensely intimate production in the small Court House Theatre. Everything about this production, including Paul Sportelli’s haunting violin underscoring, shimmers with emotion. I note that Maxwell has staged some scenes so that not everyone in the theatre can see the character’s reaction. This is not a criticism; this is part and parcel of the hidden emotions of the characters who are trying to hide how they feel. There are plenty of moments I can see and others don’t, but that never diminishes from the whole, exquisite thing.

Sue LePage’s set is rustic and simple. Wood chairs are arranged around the space. A table with the samovar is stage right. A looped rope hangs down from the flies. It is the simplest of swings on which Yelena (Moya O’Connell) slowly swings herself in the first scene. She is lost in thought. Everyone is dressed in peasant garb. Yelena is dressed like a Greek goddess; white flowing material, gold details.

Uncle Vanya has pent-up anger towards Serebyakov (David Schurmann) and Neil Barclay who plays Uncle Vanya is compelling as he seethes with invective towards the pompous professor. It’s a gushing of frustration that he, Vanya, never gets his due and the professor is showered with respect. It’s a performance that suggests Vanya is experiencing misplaced anger because he so pines for Yelena’s approval and isn’t getting that either. Barclay conveys all that–and a certain sweetness mixed with caustic sarcasm.

While these characters have their own emotional secrets there is love and respect for the most part from the people who live on the estate. Sonya seems to be the peace-maker. She is always calming down Uncle Vanya, or Serebryakov, or pining for Astrov. Marla McLean plays Sonya’s yearning with understatement. She does not need to play in neon that Sonya is unhappy. McLean imbues Sonya with a sweetness and common sense. She is a woman who finds out at last what her future holds and knows that she has to be strong for both herself and her Uncle. McLean carries this off with sensitivity and determination.

Yelena, really the one outsider, is perceptive and sensitive to those around her. She knows that Sonya loves Astrov. Yelena is herself interested in him. While Moya O’Connell, who plays Yelena, dreamily swings on the swing, she doesn’t miss a thing in her observations. Yelena is aware of her allure in this production but doesn’t flaunt it—although dressing as a Greek goddess might make one think so. This Yelena is frustrated in her marriage but resigned to remaining in it. She knows she is putting herself in danger if she succumbs to Astrov’s advances, but we see that breathy light-headedness that overcomes her when Astrov is near.

For his part, Patrick McManus has all that world-weariness of Astrov. He says he’s exhausted with all his medical ministrations to his patients. He frets over the environment and has kept meticulous records and painted charts showing the diminishment of the land and wildlife in the area over time.

The sexual desire between Astrov and Yelena is palpable. Interestingly, when they do have their moment of ‘passionate embrace’ it’s not an intense kiss, as one might have expected, but rather a fierce hug. I thought that odd. When Yelena says, “Oh for once in my life….” and flings herself into Astrov’s arms, I thought a full-blown kiss is in order. But not here. Perhaps someone had a cold?

We see what Yelena has to contend with in her elderly, crotchety, complaining husband Serebryakov, played with self-absorbed impatience by David Schurmann. While Serebryakov lectures everybody as if he is some high and mighty scholar, he is put in his place quite often, usually by Vanya.

Marina, an elderly servant of the house, tends to the samovar. As played by Sharry Flett, she is loving, kind and non-judgemental. She is anything but background filler. Marina knows the deeper workings of every character and loves them unconditionally. She has been offering Astrov cups of tea for years and knows that when he refuses it she offers him a glass of vodka which she knows he won’t refuse. This is done with a smile and a twinkle in the eye. An imp lives in that elderly servant, certainly the way Flett plays her.

Peter Millard plays Waffles as a sad, stoical man doing his duty and his best. He pines for his former wife and shows that in spades by paying her bills, even though she’s married someone else. Sad and funny.

Annie Baker’s adaptation is vibrant, colloquial and contemporary. At one point Marina says good bye to Astrov with: “To your health, sweetie pie.” I don’t think I’m alone when I say I shall be using that phrase from now on. And it’s perfectly placed for Marina. I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a term of endearment like “sweetie pie” in Russian.

Comment. For the most part these characters live a life of quiet desperation, hoping, dreaming, wishing for something unattainable. Such is the world of Chekhov. Except for Uncle Vanya’s outburst, the characters keep their emotions in check. But we don’t. The intimacy of the production and the beauty of the performances have us aware of every subtlety, every expression of longing, sadness and regret. No breast-beating is needed here for us to appreciate their angst. And of course this being Chekhov, it’s loaded with humour, as is the production. Chekhov is not laughing at his characters. He’s just put them in a world in which they are desperate for acceptance. The character of Waffles was divorced by his wife soon after the wedding, but Waffles still loves her, even when she marries again. To show this devotion he has paid some of the couple’s expenses.

Uncle Vanya cries in anguish to Serebyakov that he has ruined his life working on that estate, cheating himself of happiness, that he and Sonya always sent every kopek to him and never took a raise to show their honesty. Serebryakov answers with equal indignation that they could have, should have, given themselves a raise. Makes sense. And it’s hilarious. But we aren’t laughing at them either, just their circumstances.

Astrov talks about how tired he is in his doctoring, that he is always on his feet without any chance of rest. Yet he says this pacing back and forth (Chekhov’s stage direction) and never sits down. I always smile at that.

I love the ache of Uncle Vanya. I love the folly and sweetness of its characters and how Chekhov gives us glimpses into country life—his sort of subtitle. All of these things are realized with sensitive care in this lovely, heart-squeezing production.

Presented by the Shaw Festival.

Opened: May 11, 2016.
Closes: Sept. 11, 2016.
Cast: 10; 5 men, 5 women
Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.

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