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Deep Dish Theater: Uncle Vanya Proves That the 19th Century Russians, Too, Led Lives of Quiet Desperation

February 21, 2009 - Chapel Hill, NC:


A quietly simple set depicts what should be a simple, quiet home in Deep Dish Theater Company’s Uncle Vanya, currently onstage at University Mall. But the return of the man who actually owns the home, rather than running it, has put the entire household into a panic. The old Professor, Alexander Serebriakov (Tom Marriott), has come home to retire; and this decision has put the future of the farm in jeopardy, for most of the family — including Ivan Petrovich Vanya (Marc Filiaci) himself — feel the professor is a fool, and will bring ruin down on this once-simple household.

Vanya has run his brother’s farm for years, with the help of his niece, Alexander’s daughter, Sonya (Page Purgar). They have taken care of Alexander’s mother, Maria (Adair Wiess), Sonya’s grandmother, who dotes on her son-in-law, the professor. For his part, the professor brings home with him a young and beautiful second wife, Yelena (Anne-Caitlin Donohue). It is clear she is bored and lost here. Alexander is now making much use of the old nanny who has lived with the family, Marina (Sharlene Thomas), and the local doctor, Mikhail Astrov (David Berberian), who is also the local forester. Wandering in and out of the house, adding his own homespun advice, is the neighbor Ilya Ilych Telegin (Thom Gradisher). (Telegin also adds some music on his guitar to try and cheer the household.) The cast is rounded out by Yefim (Jack Haggerty), a hired hand.

As to what happens during the brief stay of Alexander and his wife, it would be difficult to distinguish Uncle Vanya from a soap opera. Dr. Astrov finds his head turned by Yelena, who is trying to get him interested in Sonya, who wants him badly but is too plain to attract his attention. Her pain causes her so much distress that the books — Sonya’s specialty — are being ignored. Vanya, meanwhile, is so furious at his brother that he cannot run his end of the farm, either; and the entire household is in an uproar — so much so, in fact, that Vanya actually fires a gun at Alexander, but is so rattled that he misses him twice.

Director Paul Frellick uses Christa Devitt’s well-designed set to depict many different rooms in the house all within the same four walls. Beautiful furniture and costumes by Sue Sweezy place the time well within the latter half of the 19th century. But everyone is unhappy. The group of eight people seems to do little more than go banging up against one another. No one is quite sure how they have come to this point or what it is that must be done to get out of it. Finally, by what seems mutual consent, Alexander departs; and the house — albeit a little more desperately — returns to what passes for normal.

Marc Filiaci gives us a Vanya who is completely surprised by his reaction to the return of his brother, but equally passionate about it nonetheless. His anger and his confusion battle for superiority. Meanwhile, Marriott as Alexander is oblivious, far too introverted and just as hale a buffoon as could be expected. The cast finds the correct balance between individual characters and the ensemble acting so that we learn to care for Vanya, Sonya, and their plight.

What many consider to be anathema is that Chekhov always considered his plays to be comedies. What the playwright meant to say is that life is what happens to you while you are making other plans. While the farm is run, the time passes by, the professor teaches, and the doctor tries to be an environmentalist, the aristocracy of the Russian world was sinking, headed inexorably toward the Revolution. But Chekhov wanted to depict the everyday reality of life and the desperate lives lived in a time when the aristocracy was set on a long slope downward, with little or no way to make it stop.

Deep Dish has assembled an excellent cast and a beautiful setting to tell this tale of quiet desperation. Top-notch ensemble acting and outstanding technical support make this production of Uncle Vanya a beautiful and tightly woven presentation., which continues Feb. 25-March 1, and March 4-8 and 11-14. See our theatre calendar for details.