Review: Uncle Vanya

by Lynn on February 8, 2024

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person at the CAA Theatre, 651 Yonge St. Toronto, Ont. Mirvish Productions presents the Crow’s Theatre Production. Plays until Feb. 25, 2024.

Tom Rooney as Uncle Vanya, 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

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

The search for love, worth, respect and purpose occupy the characters in Chekhov’s play and Liisa Repo-Martell’s heart-squeezing adaptation.  Beautiful and illuminating.

The Story. From the Mirvish website: “In the waning days of Czarist Russia, Ivan “Vanya” Voinitsky, and his niece, Sonya, toil ceaselessly to run their family estate. After retiring, Sonya’s father, a celebrated professor, returns to the estate with his young, glamorous wife. When he announces his plans to sell the land and evict them all, passions explode and lives come undone.”

Uncle Vanya is a look into the quietly desperate lives of people stuck in ennui and aching because of lost opportunities, unrequited love, profound unhappiness and crippling  boredom. And in Chekhov’s typical way, it’s funny.

Vanya and his niece Sonya run the country estate for Alexandre, a noted scholar and professor, and send him the money the estate makes. 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, 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.

The Production. Note: This is a remount of the 2022 Crow’s Theatre Toronto production but with a restaging.  When the production played in Toronto in 2022, the production was performed in the round, with the audience on all sides of the action and surprises in the various nooks and crannies of the space. There was a remount in 2024 at Theatre Aquarius in Hamilton, Ont.  a proscenium theatre, we watch the action straight on. There are still lots of surprises. Now it has moved to the CAA Theatre in Toronto, also a proscenium theatre.

This is the third time I’ve seen this production in its various configurations. It goes from strength to strength. The performances are passionate, fierce, heart-squeezing and so full of the pain of disappointment, regret and humour of Chekhov and his lost, bored, loving characters, that it leaves you breathless.

We are told that there are 26 rooms in this house. It’s so big people get lost in it. Set and props co-designers, Julie Fox and Josh Quinlan, have reconfigured the main room of this manor house so one gets the sense of the size and suggested former grandeur of the estate. The rugs are threadbare and faded. The wood floor is uneven and there are gaps in the wood planks.  A long table and benches on either side are upstage center. Presumably this is where the family eats and Vanya (Tom Rooney) and Sonya (bahia watson) work. The little furniture there is is old, musty and broken down, except for Marina the former nanny’s (Carolyn Fe) overstuffed, worn chair and foot rest facing downstage and a small desk stage right.  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. There are double doors leading off to other parts of the house. There is a glass floor to ceiling window looking out to a garden and the glass is filthy with grime. One can imagine dust dancing in the shafts of Kimberley Purtell’s lighting. The lighting gives the sense of a faded photograph of by gone times.

Ming Wong’s costumes—well-worn for those who work the estate, and very stylish for Yelena (Shannon Taylor) and Alexandre (an irascible Eric Peterson) who is always in a suit to give off the impression of success. 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.

Director Chris Abraham has beautifully, sensitively realized the subtle bubbling of emotions in the play—that bubbling emotion is more noticeable since I am sitting close to the stage. Chris Abraham’s direction illuminates the ache of yearning, of disappointment and lost love. There are furtive looks of Vanya for Yelena, he is so in love with her. There are lingering looks of Astrov (Ali Kazmi) at Yelena, and she giving him a second look, when she thinks he isn’t looking. 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. I especially sensed that more than ever with this iteration of the play.

With this proscenium staging one gets a stronger sense of the ennui, boredom and despair these people experience. Performances are fuller, richer, deeper and more nuanced. One is keenly aware that Vanya is always shuffling around aimlessly just to give the sense of being busy. What he is really experiencing is crushing boredom, waiting for Alexandre (Eric Peterson) to appear and the household to snap to attention. Tom Rooney plays Vanya as stooped, defeated by life and disappointment. He’s anxious, angry at Alexandre and in secret love with Yelena. When he rages at Alexandre it’s in a torrent of articulation and linguistic dexterity that is breathtaking. Vanya is ground down by life and the lack of its fullness. Brilliant work.

Characters such as Astrov (a haunted, serious Ali Kazmi) talks of how exhausted he is but can’t seem to sit down and rest (part of Chekhov’s quiet humour). I always wonder what would happen if Astrov sat down.  Ali Kazmi as Astrov is compelling, passionate about ecology and the future, haunted by the recent death of a patient, and besotted by Yelena. There is a lot going on in his life and Kazmi, illuminates it with boldness and verve.

If ever 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.  

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 full of 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 effect on people but is not destructive with it. She beautifully conveys that her boredom is suffocating, but won’t leave or do anything to relieve the boredom.

bahia watson plays Sonya. Sonya is industrious, efficient, an organizer. She finds things to occupy her and she moves with a purpose and a bright optimism, although keeping her emotions secret, but only just. She is the diplomat, the calmer of frayed nerves, the one who takes charge when all else fails. I think because bahia watson’s Sonya seems fragile herself, but still in control, that Sonya can calm others.

As Marina the old nanny/maid, Carolyn Fe quietly and with care, sees that the family is fed, that the samovar is always on, offers motherly affection and drink to Astrov, is always folding blankets and even when she is sitting in her chair, she’s knitting, being useful. Marina is always smiling and reacting to what’s going on around her. She is industrious and uncomplaining while the others avoid doing anything and complain about it all the time. Chekhov is hilarious.

Telegin, nick-named “Waffles” because of his pock-marked skin, is played with expressive expansion by Anand Rajaram. Telegin is always forgotten, not taken seriously. He is desperate to be noticed so he hangs onto every word of Alexandre, eager to interject a thought or opinion. These interjections are broad, loud and in keeping with a forgotten man, who just wants to be noticed. Eric Peterson as Alexandre, tolerates Telegin, but usually ignores him. 

Finally, there is Vanya’s mother, Maria, played by dtaborah johnson. She seems in a world of her own—flamboyantly dressed, ignorant of her son’s ennui, devoted to every thought of Alexandre, and fancies herself an intellectual.

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.

Comment. Stunning production, wonderful theatre. Heart-breaking and hilarious. Pure Chekhov.

Mirvish Productions presents a Crow’s Theater Production:

Opened: Feb. 7, 2024

Runs until: Feb. 25, 2024.

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

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

1 Andrew Macrae February 9, 2024 at 9:38 am

Although I enjoyed the original production at Crow’s immensely, I found that I was struggling for the first fifteen minutes or so to figure who these people were and how they all fit together… the reason became clear afterwards when my friend explained that the entire first act had been cut. It also makes nonsense of Chekov’s famous dictum, (to paraphrase), “you can’t introduce a gun in the first act without it being used in the third”.
I think this radical cut bears mentioning.