Boredom is a very dangerous thing. The playwright Anton Chekhov certainly knew that. In Uncle Vanya, Chekhov’s classic meditation on ennui, the characters lead lives of quiet — and not so quiet — desperation. This desperation can be highly destructive and contagious. When the retired professor Alexandr Vladimirovich (Peter Stein) and his young second wife Yelena (Lauren Boehm) spend a summer at their country estate, they “infect” everyone at the estate who is “actively creating something” with their “idlenesss.” Although the ardent environmentalist and physician Astrov (Tim Perry) feebly insists that he is merely “joking,” his diagnosis is hardly off the mark.
The Readers’ Theatre’s performance reading, directed by Anne Marie Cummings and Tim Mollen, strips down the play. There are no silver birch trees or Persian rugs in sight to recreate the hallowed halls of a sprawling 19th century country estate. There are no crisp, jingling harness bells or melodic bird calls. But there is darkness and silence.
The minimalist setting suits the neat and succinct translation penned by the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Mamet. The oscillations between acceptance and rebellion, tranquility and madness, are captured by the award-winning improvisational jazz cellist Hank Roberts, who has collaborated extensively with renowned musicians like Bill Frissell, U2 and The Bad Plus. Roberts’ mellow and tender notes create hazy spaces in which even the most ephemeral, difficult thing can take refuge.
The play is really about a not-so-modern malaise. The characters treat their lives like jars which they try to fill up with anything they can find. Astrov and Vanya (P.D. Shuman) become enamored by the ravishing Yelena; they abandon their work and restraint in pursuit of her affection. The lovesick Vanya appears most buffoonish and pitiful when he offers Yelena a bunch of “sad autumn roses” and likens her to a “mermaid,” only to be derided by Yelena as “disgusting.” Although much admired for her beauty, Yelena is consumed by self-loathing, perceiving herself as a “second-rate creature” who mistook he r own attraction to Vladimirovich’s fame for “love.”
The insufferably arrogant but widely misunderstood Vladimirovich is well-versed in lamenting the perils of old age. (Stein, a former Cornell Physics Professor, assures The Sun that he is not at all like his overbearing onstage counterpart.) For such a learned man, the professor is startlingly ignorant of the vast sacrifices his brother-in-law and daughter have made to support his comfortable urban lifestyle. For years, Vanya and Sonya spent interminable nights admiring and translating the professor’s work and managing his country estate. When Vladimirovich announces his plan to sell the estate, Vanya descends into madness, although Vladimirovich protests that the plan is hardly set in stone.
It is to the actors’ credit that none of the characters sinks into anonymity even during this first run through of the play. Each character is interesting; even the allegedly boring ones, because one can glimpse their robust inner lives. The old nurse Marina (Esther Herkowitz) and the impoverished landowner Telegin (Dave Dietrich) are the only characters who never display any signs of neurosis. They are also the only characters who are continuously working. Throughout the play, Marina knits serenely, giving out words of wisdom and comfort to various characters who struggle to flee from their frenetic situations. Like Marina, Telegin observes the chaotic antics of the Vladimirovich household from a distance. The spectacle is, however, secondary to his carpentry. Later, Telegin is accompanied by a pair of black work boots, another symbol of his dedication to manual work.
Is work, then, the cure to emptiness? The industrious Sonya seems to champion this theory, but she draws strength from the hope that she will be rewarded for her work. She reassures a broken Vanya, “I have faith, Uncle, fervent, passionate faith. We shall rest. We shall rest.” Although Sonya suffers intolerably — she has to deal with a demanding father and depressed uncle above her personal battles with her own plainness and boredom — she is the only character who honestly admits to being “happy.” Remarkably, one such occasion occurs during an uncharacteristically intimate conversation with Yelena, when Sonya confesses her unrequited feelings for Astrov. Sonya’s ability to maintain graciousness under pressure in such a neurotic household is nothing short of miraculous.
Does Sonya have good reason for her faith, or Vanya, for his “madness?” Dressed up or stripped down, Uncle Vanya continues to be prominently revived because of these hard questions. A Lawrence Oliver-directed adaptation opened the first National Theatre season on the main stage, while Annie Baker’s TV star-studded version opens off-Broadway this summer. Chekhov, expectedly, makes no answers explicit. It’s enough of a clue to know that in this play, words speak as loudly as actions. Uncle Vanya opens on April 27 at The Space behind Greenstar. Following the play, Cornell professor Bruce Levitt will be delivering a 15-minute talk-back. For more details, visit www.thereaderstheatre.com.