TR Robertson— A wonderful Globe-commissioned world premiere translation of Russian writer, Anton Chekhov’s masterpiece, “Uncle Vanya”, is as timely today as it was in the late 1800’s when the play premiered in Moscow. At times, there is nothing better than families and at times there is nothing worse than families, and this play, now appearing on stage at the Globe’s Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre, brings this out with amazing performances by veteran, award winning actors and actresses.
This Chekhov classic is a perfect example of the writer who has been referred to as a contributor to the birth of early modernism in the theatre and a writer who has been said to present the “theatre of mood” on the stage. There are certainly moods galore in “Uncle Vanya”, as each character twists and turns through the emotions of love, anger, hope, desire and despair. The story revolves around Alexander who has returned to his estate in Russia, along with his very young bride Elena. Taking care of the estate, while Alexander is away, is Vanya, husband of Alexander’s sister who has passed away. Helping Vanya on the estate is Sonya, his niece. Also living on the estate is Marya, Sonya’s grandmother and Marina, Sonya’s former nanny. Stopping by the estate is Mikhail, a local doctor who takes care of Alexander’s various ailments. Adding to the building tension on the estate is the fact that Vanya seems to want to make advances toward Elena, the good doctor seems to want to make advances toward Elena, Sonya wants to make advances toward the good doctor, Elena may or may not have interest in the good doctor and oh yes, Alexander wants to announce to everyone that he wants to sell the estate, leaving everyone out in the cold, although he does have a plan to move some to Moscow. If this isn’t a prescription for mood swings and heightened emotions, I don’t know what it would take.
Director Richard Nelson, who is also one of the co-translators of the play, along with Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, brought this play to stage using an approach referred to as “conversational theatre”. The action on stage takes place around three tables and 11 chairs, placed in a variety of locations on stage. The White Theatre is a theatre in the round and moving some of the tables and chairs around, along with the props on the tables, allows the actors and actresses to create different settings and time periods on the stage and the audience gets different views of what is unfolding. The audience can be said to “listen in” on the family conversations and see the resulting developments these conversations have with the actors on stage.
Photos by Jim Cox
The key to this type of staging for any play is the group of actors and actresses selected to perform it and The Globe has succeeded again in bringing together a very talented cast who can handle a presentation that gives the audience the feeling that they are indeed “listening in” to the personal conversations of a family in turmoil. Jay O. Sanders presented a dynamic, complicated Vanya, a man whose world is about to turn upside down, echoed toward the end of the play, “What am I to do?”. Sanders is a very successful theatre, film and television actor performing across the country. Playing his niece Sonya is Yvonne Woods, who has performed at The Globe in “Hay Fever”. Woods presents Sonya as a woman who desires something other than what surrounds her and she presents her with passion and tenderness. She tries to bring some normalcy to the turmoil she and Vanya are facing and answers Vanya’s plight with “What can we do, we’ve got to live.”
Jon Devries portrays the older Alexander. Devries has appeared on Broadway and Off Broadway as well as in film and television. As Alexander we see a man who is blinded by what is going on around him, worried more about his ailments and wondering why is younger wife stays with him. He sets the family in turmoil with his announcement to sell the estate and doesn’t see what damage he has done, only seeing a chance to make a profit with the sale. Portraying the doctor, Mikhail, is veteran actor Jesse Pennington. Pennington presents the doctor as a man who questions the life the family on the estate is living and a man who has only his best interests in mind. He also gives a moving series of statements about saving the environment and the forests around the estate. Even Chekhov was concerned about the environment in the late 1800’s. Playing the woman of many of the men’s desires, Elena, is Celeste Arias. Arias is making her Globe debut and presents Elena in an innocent, yet seductive manner. We feel Elena doesn’t want to be the person of the men’s desires, but there is “something about her” that brings this out when she is around Vanya, Mikhail and the much older Alexander. The question most ask is, what does she see in Alexander and security is the word most answer.
Completing the cast is Roberta Maxwell as Marya, Sonya grandmother, and Kate Kearney-Patch as Marina, Sonya’s former nanny. Both women are veteran actresses and Maxwell is an award winning theatre actress. Both of the characters these women portray seem to be a little lost in what is happening around them, but Marina appears to be figuring out what’s going on quicker than Marya.
Director Richard Nelson has brought the turmoil of this family to life in a unique manner with this presentation. With Sound Designer Will Pickens, small mikes hung above the stage to give the audience a better chance to hear the conversations the family had with one another. The Globe also provided Assisted Listening Devices for anyone who felt they needed an aid to audibility in hearing the conversations. Costumes, Sets, Lighting for the production were handled by Susan Hilferty and Mark Koss – Costume Designers, Jason Ardizzone-West – Scenic Designer and Jennifer Tipton – Lighting Designer.
Anton Chekhov is a very interesting playwright. Trained as a medical doctor, he would begin writing while in medical school. Chekhov said, “Medicine is my lawful wife and literature is my mistress”. He would write a series of short stories using a pseudonym, Antosha Chekhonte, and as his work became more accepted he would write under his real name. He stated, “The role of the artist is to ask questions, not answer them” and “Uncle Vanya” certainly typifies this feeling. There are no real answers when the play is finished, leaving the audience to wonder, what will happen to the individuals we just saw on stage.
“Uncle Vanya” will run through March 11th at The Old Globe’s Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre. Tickets can be purchased by calling 619-234-5623 or go to www.TheOldGlobe.org.