Review: UNCLE VANYA

by Lynn on September 13, 2022

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person from Crow’s Theatre, at the Streetcar/Crowsnest. Plays until Oct. 2, 2022.

www.crowstheatre.com

l-r: Bahia Watson, Tom Rooney (photo: Dahlia Katz)

Written by Anton Chekhov

Adapted by Liisa Repo-Martell

Directed by Chris Abraham

Set and props co-designer, Julie Fox and Josh Quinlan

Set and props co-designer, Josh Quinlan

Costumes by Ming Wong

Lighting by Kimberly Purtell

Sound by Thomas Ryder Payne

Cast: Carolyn Fe

dtaborah johnson

Ali Kazmi

Eric Peterson

Anand Rajaram

Tom Rooney

Shannon Taylor

Bahia Watson

This beautifully sensitive production and deeply felt adaptation of Uncle Vanya is like a light in the world.

The Story. Uncle Vanya was published in 1898 and first performed in Russia in 1899. While Chekhov described the play on the title page as “Scenes from Country Life in Four Acts” the play is much more than that of course. It is a look into the quietly desperate lives of people stuck and aching because of lost opportunities, unrequited love, profound unhappiness and boredom. And in Chekhov’s typical way, it’s funny.

Vanya and his niece Sonya run the country estate and send the money it makes to Alexandre, a noted scholar and professor. Alexandre’s late first wife was Sonya’s mother and Vanya’s sister. When Alexandre’s wife died, he married Yelena, a woman much younger than he was. Because the times are not as prosperous for Alexandre in the city, he’s come to the country estate with Yelena to continue his writing of essays, articles and other scholarly endeavors that occupy his time. In the process he and Yelena disrupt the whole household.

There used to be an order to the day of those on the estate. Marina, the family’s elderly servant, was used to preparing the meals at set times during the day and sleeping at normal, regular times. With the professor’s odd sleeping patterns, he got up at noon and worked usually all night. Meals were not regular. Vanya and Sonya had not attended to running the estate for fear of upsetting the timetable of Alexandre. The animosity of Vanya towards Alexandre was palpable. Vanya felt he squandered his life in the service to this pompous buffoon. Vanya also felt he had a better intellect than Alexandre. Vanya’s mother, Maria, hung on to every word written or said by Alexandre much to the chagrin of Vanya.  And to make matters worse Vanya was in love with Yelena.

Alexandre was always complaining of ill health and so Dr. Astrov was summoned to come and minister to him. When the doctor got there, Alexandre wouldn’t see him. Astrov was haunted by a young patient who died in his care. He drank, usually with Vanya. Astrov was secretly in love with Yelena as well. Rounding out this stoical longing was Sonya, who also pined for Astrov. Telegin, was an impoverished friend who helped at the estate. He tried to hold on to his dignity.    

The Production. The audience sits around the four walls of the Guloien Theatre. Kimberly Purtell’s lighting gives the sense of a faded photograph of by gone times. Set and props co-designers, Julie Fox and Josh Quinlan have captured the size and suggested former grandeur of the estate by filling the whole space as if we are in the main room of the house. The room now suggests the fortunes have fallen. The floorboards are uneven or broken; there are pockets of stones and earth poking up where boards should be. The rugs are threadbare. (Interestingly, the narrow runner rugs that lead the audience into the playing space are luxurious and deep).

Ming Wong’s costumes—well-worn for those who work the estate, and very stylish for Yelena and Maria. Alexandre is always in a suit to give off the impression of success.   There is little furniture, except for Marina’s (Carolyn Fe) overstuffed, worn chair, a small desk close to one side, and a table, bench and chair in the middle of the room where people eat and Vanya (Tom Rooney) and Sonya (Bahia Watson) work.  Memorabilia, books and lots of stuff are placed under things or around the room etc. A chandelier hangs down from the flies. Beams are above and they are large and thick. This is a huge house, now shabby. At times Thomas Ryder Payne provides a subtle hum, ‘buzz’ that underscores a speech. It’s one more aspect of something that closes in on these people as they try and endure.

Liisa Repo-Martell’s adaptation breathes a freshness into Chekhov’s timeless play, that enhances it without distorting it. For example, at the end, as Sonya is comforting Uncle Vanya, trying to buoy him and give him hope, the frequent translation is that after they dedicate their lives to work, they will find rest (in the afterlife?). In Liisa Repo-Martell’s version, Sonya says they will ‘have peace’ which I think is more profound. More comforting. Repo-Martell’s language is both of Chekhov’s time and timeless. There is an intellectual modernity to it, certainly for Vanya, and certainly when the always watchable Tom Rooney plays him. This is a performance of exquisite details and intelligence.

Director Chris Abraham has beautifully, sensitively realized the subtle bubbling of emotions in the play. Chris Abraham’s direction illuminates the ache of yearning, of disappointment and lost love.

Characters such as Astrov (a haunted, sombre Ali Kazmi) talks of how exhausted he is but can’t seem to sit down and rest (part of Chekhov’s quiet humour). Uncle Vanya is consumed with sadness and ennui but can’t stop shuffling around aimlessly as if trying to find a place of comfort, and failing. Sonya is industrious. She finds things to occupy her and she moves with a purpose, although keeping her emotions secret. As Marina the old nanny/maid, Carolyn Fe quietly sees that the family is fed, that the samovar is always on, offers motherly affection and drink to Astrov, and even when she is sitting in her chair, she’s knitting, being useful. Again, Chekhov and Chris Abraham are having a little laugh. Marina is industrious and uncomplaining.  Abraham carefully realizes each character’s heart-ache. Scenes are never rushed. They have time to breathe and be. They linger in the air compelling us to see, feel and be aware of each character’s beating heart.

The cast is sublime. As Uncle Vanya, Tom Rooney gives a masterclass of a performance. It is full of such nuance and subtly. He’s stooped, defeated by life and disappointment. He’s anxious, angry at Alexandre and in secret love with Yelena. When you expect him to declare his unhappiness loudly, he whimpers it and breaks your heart. When he rages at Alexandre it’s in a torrent of articulation and linguistic dexterity that is breathtaking. Brilliant work.

Bahia Watson illuminates Sonya’s generosity of spirit, her kindness and certainly her delicate ability to calm Vanya and give him hope. Her delirious joy when she can confide in Yelena is wonderful; her profound sadness when she learns about Astrov’s feelings squeezes the heart. Yelena is the most perceptive character in the play. She knows the secret feelings of those in the house and it’s so clear in Shannon Taylor’s playing of her. Shannon Taylor’s Yelena is like watching a breeze move, there is such grace. Conversation stops when she enters a room because characters are compelled to look at her. Taylor is watchful at everybody in the room. She listens to what they say and intuits how they feel. She knows her affect on people but is not destructive with it. She is bored, but won’t leave.

Anand Rajaram as Telegin, also known as “Waffles” because of his pocked skin, just wants to be noticed and for his name to be pronounced properly. He is impoverished but works hard to be useful. Telegin is a character who could be the focus of ridicule in that hard world. Rajaram gives him dignity. If every there was a character who was pompous, bombastic and a source of hollow pontificating, Alexandre is it and he is played with wonderful arrogance, irritation and much hilarity by Eric Peterson. While Alexandre is revered by many, he’s easily defeated in an argument by Vanya who shows the hollow phony Alexandre is. Alexandre does fool Maria, Vanya’s mother in a performance by dtaborah johnson that is quietly flamboyant and delusional.  

Director Chris Abraham also takes givens about directing and theatricality and turns them on their ear in Uncle Vanya. It’s as if he’s saying that it’s not necessary to view everything clearly.  Considering many characters are harboring secrets and not telling anyone until they just can’t help it, then keeping almost ‘secrets’ makes sense.

Many scenes take place in corners where often it’s not easy to see what is happening. Characters appear out of nowhere, from a corner, alerting us with a snore, they are there.  Sonya fixes Astrov a snack of cheese and wine at counter hidden in a corner, seen by some and not by others. She puts the snack on a tray and takes it to the table, on view to everybody.

Astrov is keenly aware of the change in vegetation in the area. He has tracked the disappearance of trees over time on several huge sheets he has kept rolled up, which he brings to show Yelena. He unrolls the sheets by laying them on the floor at the far end of the room and explaining to Yelena the changes over time. Those close to the sheets can see the changes. But for others, there is a table etc. in the way.  The placement of the sheets on the floor is deliberate, even though everybody would be able to see clearly if the sheets had been placed on the table in the centre of the room.  

At one point Sonya confides to Yelena that she loves Astrov and wonders how he feels about her. Yelena offers to sound out Astrov discreetly. When Yelena lets Sonya know the answer, they are at a side of the room (subtly illuminated), while ‘centre stage’ Alexandre is raging about something. This pulling of our focus also pulls at our hearts when we realize what Yelena is telling Sonya just with a shake of her head.

Comment. Such heart-ache. Such longing and yearning and it’s funny in a truly Chekhovian way. These characters are stuck in their misery but continue to perpetuate it. Telegin was jilted on his wedding day when his wife ran off with another man. But for 30 years he remained faithful to his wife and supported her and her lover. One wrinkles one’s eyebrows at this, yet it’s funny. Vanya displays an absolute crystal intellect and linguistic dexterity that Alexandre can’t approach and yes, Vanya has squandered his life toiling on that estate. But he never moved to do anything else. Vanya berates Alexandre for never raising his salary in all the time Vanya has been overseeing the estate. Yet Vanya never asked for a raise either. It’s as if the characters need to suffer to feel alive. And they won’t move to change it And in a Chekhovian way, that’s funny.

Stunning production, wonderful theatre all round.

Crow’s Theater Presents:

Runs until: Oct. 2, 2022.

Running Time: 2 hours, 45 minutes (1 intermission)

www.crowstheatre.com

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