I know what you’re thinking: is Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya just like Life Sucks, except with a bunch of Russian guys? Let me turn the question around for you: do you think that Uncle Vanya could be set in Argentina, or in medieval Turkey, or in the Wild West, with a few adjustments? I do, and also believe it could be set convincingly on planets not yet discovered by us, or in civilizations lost to our history books, so universal is the dilemma it identifies, so significant is the question to all sentient beings. The question is this: what gives my life value, and lets me know that it’s worth living? The answer is nothing.
Having asserted that a troupe could play Uncle Vanya comfortably on other planets, let me also assert that it is played competently in a workmanlike performance by Chesapeake Shakespeare Company in Baltimore, ensconced comfortably in their new Calvert Street digs (more on that later). In Nathan Thomas’ translation (aside from Anglicizing the names of the characters, not much different than other available translations), Uncle Vanya is the story of congenitally unhappy people being unhappy for no easily discernible reason. The business of the story is to root out their woe.
John Peterson Battles (Kevin Costa), a 47-year-old bachelor, manages an enormous house (26 “cavernous” rooms) and farm owned by his beloved niece, Sophia (Lizzi Albert). The farm earns a small income but it keeps John and Sophia busy, and they are surrounded by a beautiful forest. John has a good friend, the hard-working, hard-drinking doctor Michael Leonardson Astrov (Ron Heneghan), who is also a 19th-century environmentalist of sorts. Sophia’s widowed father, Professor Alexander Silver (Thomas) is visiting with his second wife, the beautiful Helen (Kathryn Elizabeth Kelly); he is physically out of sorts, probably with gout, but refuses to take any guidance from the doctor. There is also Sophia’s maternal grandmother (Suzanne Knapik), an impoverished nobleman who has managed to latch on to the family (Scott Alan Small), a nanny (Lisa Hodsoll), a workman (Lyle Blake Smythers) and a (mostly offstage) musician (Nick Delaney).
The central characters live in comfort; the house overflows with food and drink; no one is sick (except maybe the Professor, a little); and they are all amusing folks, who should be good, or at least entertaining, company for each other. Why so sad, then? Let’s start with John: he has labored much of his life to advance the fortunes of his idol, the Professor; but now he sees that the Professor’s theories are all nonsense, and that he has wasted his life. He is now old, at 47 (47! And yet Chekhov himself died at 44), and he can never recapture his youth. Plus, he lusts after the Professor’s wife, who will have nothing to do with him. Oh, if only he were 37 again, and Helen a lissome marriageable seventeen!
But what of the Doctor? He takes on an enormous workload of difficult cases – terrible, terrible cases; tuberculosis outbreaks; train mishaps; factory accidents – and realizes that he feels nothing but contempt for his patients, rich or poor, educated or not. And also for everyone who is not his patient. And also – this is going to sound familiar – he lusts after the Professor’s wife, who will not leave her husband.
And what about Helen? Does all this admiration gratify her? Absolutely not! She is repulsed by John’s attention. And the Doctor is even worse, since she finds him attractive and thus a temptation to leave her immensely tedious and self-important husband – a temptation which makes her belittle herself. As for the Professor, he is aware that everyone hates him, and it bewilders him; he talks with such self-pity that he drives his wife out of the room. Plus, he hates country living, but his income doesn’t really support a place in town. As for Sophia, count on her also being led to romantic disappointment.
Jean-Paul Sartre used to write about women who could define themselves only in relationship to a man, but in Uncle Vanya all the central characters try to define themselves in relationship to others. The Doctor and John imagine that they could be happy only if Helen loves them; Sophia has the same feeling about her own unrequited passion. The Professor requires that everyone love him; Helen bemoans the uselessness of her life but when Sophia proposes an alternative – to teach the poor; to care for the sick – Helen replies in astonishment, “I don’t know anything about such things, and besides, they don’t interest me. It is only in novels that women go out and teach and heal the peasants; how can I suddenly begin to do it?”
Chesapeake Shakespeare is at all times true to Chekhov’s text, but with two exceptions the characterizations are not powerful enough to bring the audience to insight. The actors move when they should, weep convincingly when they should, rage when they should; their voices are expressive and they show that they understand what they are saying. But nowhere in Ian Gallaner’s production is there a sense of urgency, or of fear, or of high stakes; despite Costa’s best efforts, when the famous gunshot takes place, it comes as a surprise.
Nor is there, I’m sorry to say, the unalloyed attention to detail that the play deserves. Doctor Astrov talks about his “long moustache” but if Heneghan’s moustache is long, it is lost amidst the rest of his beard. The nobleman is called “Waffles” because of his pockmarked face, but Small’s face – as much as you could see above his beard – is smooth. Most strikingly, the play emphasizes that Sophia is “ugly” – something she says herself, and which her stepmother confirms in an aside to the audience. Albert is decidedly unqualified for that designation. I realize there are no ugly female actors (in my view, there are no ugly women) but there are women actors who could, with the expert application of makeup, appear plain. Albert is not one of them. Every time you say something on stage which is not true to the audience’s eyes, you invite them to step out of the fictive dream and say, oh, she’s supposed to be ugly. And once an audience member steps out of the fictive dream, he may not be able to find his way back in again.
I said there were two exceptions, and let me set forth the details. Heneghan is superb as the Doctor; he lets us know instantly who he is. The text has other characters say that he is brilliant, far-seeing, and kind, and the Heneghan’s Astrov puts all of these things on the stage – not in any ostentatious way, but naturally, and quietly. His Astrov knows exactly what he is doing and why he is doing it; yet you could see that he is habitually moved by compassion. He can be a hard man, and a possessive one, but he is at all times capable of grace.
Feb 13 – March 1
Chesapeake Shakespeare Festival
7 South Calvert Street
Baltimore, MD 21202
2 hours, 15 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $17 – $40
Wednesdays thru Sundays
Details and Tickets or call 410.244.8570
The other great pleasure in this production is the performance of Costa in the title role. The Uncle – whether he is Vanya or Johnny – is at once a comic and a tragic character, and Costa strikes that balance perfectly. At times he conjures up the comedian Jason Alexander (who he somewhat resembles) and at other times he seems to invoke Woody Allen. When he cries, half-drunk, “What am I going to do” over and over to his friend Astrov, he sounds a little like Allen in Annie Hall but also like every person who has suddenly seen his lifetime dreams blown to dust. It is a superb performance, and, along with Heneghan’s, reason enough to see this show.
This is Chesapeake Shakespeare’s first season in its new theater building, and I must tell you it’s one of the most interesting – and vertical – venues I’ve seen. It has a very large three-sided thrust stage, and the seating goes back only a couple of rows. There are three levels to the seating, however. Instead of traditional chairs, it has cushioned benches which can comfortably seat three people. Unless you have the front row, there is not much room between you and the row in front of you, so you have to squeeze in if you’re the first person to occupy the bench. Each row is considerably higher than the row in front of it, and the benches are high: I’m six foot two, and my feet did not rest flat against the floor. The theater sells seats directly in front of the stage at a premium, but if the show is thoughtfully directed, as this one is, your experience from the sides will be very satisfactory. (I can’t speak for the view from the third floor.) There is a bar on both the first and second floor; the second-floor bar remains open throughout the play. This is, I am told, how they do things in the West End.
Uncle Vanya by Anton Chekhov, translated by Nathan Thomas, who is also in the production . Directed by Ian Gallanar, who is also the sound designer . Featuring Kathryn Elizabeth Kelly, Lizzi Albert, Suzanne Knapik, Kevin Costa, Ron Heneghan, Scott Alan Small, Lisa Hodsoll, Lyle Blake Smathers, and Nick Delaney. Scenic design: Chester Stacy . Lighting design: Katie McCreary . Costume design: Heather C. Jackson . Production manager: Patrick Kilpatrick . Technical director: Daniel O’Brien . Stage manager: Lauren Engler, assisted by Kate Forton . Produced by Chesapeake Shakespeare Theatre . Reviewed by Tim Treanor.