Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya is the sort of play that makes one wonder why the Russian Revolution didn’t happen much sooner. If the land owning class were living such miserable lives it must have been absolute hell for the peasants. Maybe they just couldn’t afford a guillotine? Anyway it’s playing at Crow’s Theatre right now in a production directed by Chris Abraham which runs until October 2nd.
Into the quiet life of a small estate somewhere in the region of the (today’s) border between Belarus and Ukraine comes the owner of the estate; an insufferably pompous and self-centred academic , and his much younger, glamorous wife. The lives of the family members and retainers who have been eking out a quietly miserable existence are turned upside down with consequent reflection on the meaning of their lives and a lot of shouting. It’s the quiet desperation of Strindberg crossed with the shouty dysfunctional family of Tennessee Williams. Eventually the academic and his wife go back to the city and life returns to banal normality… more or less.
It’s the sort of play that all too easily becomes something one thinks one ought to watch because it’s a “classic” and it takes some skill on the part of director and cast to create something actually engaging and (at least somewhat) enjoyable. The Crow’s production achieves it. The highly conflicted Vanya is played sensitively by Tom Rooney. His reflections on his life and its dead ends and futilities convey the sense that they are revelations to him as much as to us the audience. He even extracts what humour there is in the role. The other characters, in a sense, work as foils for Vanya.
There’s the homely daughter, Sonya (Bahia Watson) dutifully helping out despite being madly, hopelessly in live with the doctor Astrov (Ali Kazmi). Hers is a very human portrayal of a woman without prospects, no longer young. He (Astrov) is a “green” before his time; a vegetarian obsessed with habitat destruction, though strangely oblivious to people. Kazmi’s incarnation of him is high energy and kinetic; convincing, dramatic and quite funny The young wife Yelena (Shannon Taylor) provides a touch of glamour. It’s a convincing portrayal of a fish out of water who tries to help but doesn’t quite understand the house rules. The professor, Alexandre, blusters and bullies his way through all his scenes with a splendid indifference to his effect on those around him. Eric Peterson is so convincing one really wishes Vanya were a better shot. dtaborah johnson as Alexandre’s mother Maria and Carolyn Fe and Arnand Rajaram as two elderly retainers round out a fine ensemble cast.
The action is played out in the round which gives a sense of intimacy. Abraham’s production is well paced and doesn’t drag though it’s still a long evening coming in around three hours with the interval. There’s an effective lighting plot (Kimberly Purtell) and really good sound design (Thomas Ryder Payne) which both contribute substantially to the drama. Taken as a whole it’s a very fine version of the play though I still find Uncle Vanya easier to admire than enjoy, even when done this well.
Photo credits: Dahlia Katz