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If all of Anton Chekhov's mature plays share their author's uniquely humane attributes as dramatist — the keen depiction of his characters' essential boredom, the deep anxiety of his people that life has passed them by, the implicit critique of bourgeois indifference — the same holds for Uncle Vanya, only more so. The characters look at their lives — past, present, and future — and find them excruciatingly wanting. Obsession, regret, and a soul-corroding envy govern their emotions almost wholly, and we understand that change is beyond them. In this they resemble us, who watch.
Vanya, perpetually running the country estate of his pompous brother-in-law Professor Serebriakov, seethes with resentment and yearns for the academic's young wife, Elena. Sonya, his niece (and the Professor's daughter), pines for the district's cynical physician Dr. Astrov, who is slowly drinking himself to oblivion in his disgust at the world, and with himself. The Professor longs to return to a city he can no longer afford to live in, makes the household miserable with his petty demands, and wearily acknowledges the hatred he inspires, however unintentionally, in those around him. And Elena, interested in nothing and lacking the education to express her ennui, brings inadvertent tension, despair, and the contagion of idleness to everyone else. Only Vanya's mother, Maria, endlessly poring over her beloved pamphlets, seems content (or at least, oblivious), while the old nanny Marina makes her cheerful complaints, and adapts.
László Marton's production of Uncle Vanya at PlayMakers Repertory has curious textures. The time is indistinct, neither the Russia of 1899 nor, wholly, of today. Costumes and set pieces are amalgams, slightly then and somewhat now. Characters occasionally behave in extremis, their actions and gestures rooted in modernity. But Marton rightly imagines that Chekhov transcends his own era, and proves it.
John Murrell's translation is one of the finest I've encountered, often more eloquent (and funnier) than the late Paul Schmidt's, which is in most respects the one to beat. (Although Murrell's line for Marina, "In God's eyes, we're all worthless," pales compared to Schmidt's inspired "We all freeload off of God.")
Michael Levine's set gives us a country home in defiant disrepair, surrounded without by mud and planks and represented within by a dreary chaos. The use of a single electric light bulb, which gets moved from hanging cord to reading lamp, is a perfect metaphor for the very real penury to which the Professor has so thoughtlessly consigned his daughter and brother-in-law.
A splendidly varied ensemble from top to bottom, the PRC cast connects in moments large and small — from Adair B. Wiess' Maria, abstractedly holding out her hand, palm up, for a teacup, her eyes never leaving the screed she's absorbed in, to Johanna Melamed's Sonya hanging on Vanya's neck at the close, tamping down hopelessness with false bravado and empty promises of the eternal rest to come.
Joan Darling is a Marina to treasure, all warmth and rounded edges. Philip Davidson's Serebriakov is both insufferable and self-aware. Melamed, despite occasional inaudibility, is Sonya come to life, her joys higher than high, her lows depthless, and invisible to the others in either extreme. And Deanne Lorette's Elena hits just the right balance of narcissistic indifference and bored coquettishness.
If Kenneth P. Strong's Vanya is too self-regarding and obstreperous to be heartbreaking, he at least makes no obvious play for sympathy. When, on his knees, he embraces the chair Elena has just vacated, hugging it to him like a fetish, the extent of his obsessive misery is fully evident. Best of all is the great Ray Dooley, who appears to breathe Astrov into being. Dooley embraces all of the doctor's contradictions — the curdled cynicism and the deep romanticism just beneath, the promises made and thoughtlessly broken in an instant, the level-headed philosopher and the manic drunk — somehow finding in their seeming distinctness a coherent whole. Thus, the Astrov who playfully balances a medicine bottle on Vanya's head and, under the yoke of his precious vodka leaps from bench to chair to table, somersaulting with abandon, is demonstrably the same man as Astrov the passionate ecologist and ethical physician.
Marton's direction falters only briefly: there are too many long tableaus, and in the famous climax to Act Three — which surely inspired Jean Renoir's Rules of the Game — Vanya fires his pistol directly at the Professor, and at close range. How can he possibly miss? Otherwise, the staging is often sublime, as when Marton sets Vanya and Sonya at opposite sides of the stage, their private devastations unnoticed by the others. The smallest gestures glitter, as when the Professor, telling Astrov he envies his impulses, gently removes from his wife's hand the pencil she's taken from the doctor as a souvenir of what might have been.
There's some kind of special genius in that.
PlayMakers Repertory Company presents Uncle Vanya Tuesday-Saturday, March 4-8, 11-15, and 18-22, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, March 9, 16, and 23, at 2 p.m. in the Paul Green Theatre in the Center for Dramatic Art at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. $9-$27. NOTE: All tickets are just $9 on Tuesday and seating is first come, first served. 919/962-PLAY (7529). http://www.playmakersrep.org/unclepage.html and http://www.laszlomarton.net/martonnf.htm.