With several Vanyas to choose from this spring, Round House Theatre is celebrating its take on the Chekhov classic as one of the more authentic — a version of Uncle Vanya that would make the playwright happy.
Celebrated playwright Annie Baker, whose work has garnered much attention from DC theatres in past seasons (The Aliens, Circle Mirror Transformation, Body Awareness) penned this translation of Vanya in an effort to get closer to the original intentions of the language. What has emerged is something faithful to the winter-hearted lamentations we expect from Chekhov, but with language that straddles the original and the contemporary. So, too, do we encounter some unexpected turns of phrase and repetitions that may have been reworked in other adaptations.
It is, of course, the same story — the feeble professor and his much younger wife whose visit sets in motion existential and emotional turmoil against the backdrop of a rural Russian landscape. Vanya — the brother of the professor’s late wife — and Dr. Astrov, who arrives to tend to the professor, are both smitten with the urbane young wife. Meanwhile Sonya, the professor’s grown daughter, has fallen for Astrov, but knows that she’s not beautiful enough to win the doctor’s affections.
Misha Kachman’s intricate indoor/outdoor set serves well to echo the inner struggles of these characters in contrast to their outward inaction. This is something we know of Chekhov – the action hides in the language. And here, while the emotions — not to mention lusts — run hot, the characters do little but lament their chronic boredom. (“For what it is,” we hear early on, “life is pretty boring and stupid.” “Uncle Vanya,” we hear later, “this is boring.”And once again the reprise: “Everything is so desperately boring.”) The word “boring” in fact grows boring, which might just be the point.
Director John Vreeke has brought together an unusual and unusually gifted ensemble to bring Vanya to life. First, of course, there are the three theatre leaders who don’t often tread the boards themselves (Roundhouse’s own Ryan Rilette and Jerry Whiddon, and Studio founder Joy Zinoman). Then there’s sound designer Eric Shimelonis, who works often on productions but seldom graces the stage. Throw into that mix audience favorites Kimberly Gilbert (Sonya), Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey (Yelena), Mark Jaster (Waffles), and Nancy Robinette (Marina), and the lineup of award-winning, diverse theatre talent is complete.
There is, of course, an incredible amount of expectation with a cast like this. As Dr. Astrov, Rilette is vibrant and charming, offering a necessary contrast to the overall malaise, as well as a mostly-comedic drunk scene played so believably I heard whispers in the audience from a woman who thought he was actually going to fall over.
April 8 – May 3
Round House Theatre
4545 East-West Highway
2 hours with 1 intermission
Tickets: $35 – $50
Tuesdays thru Sundays
Tickets or call 240-644-1100
Fernandez-Coffey’s standoffish Yelena is intriguing, if not entirely likeable. The men are enamored with her despite her chilly affectations, suggesting their fixation with her is fueled by appearance and the unattainable rather than anything more substantive.
As Vanya, Hébert is dignified and composed, not yet as consumed by his gloom as other Vanyas before him. We see, in his rendering of the character, glimmers of hope that he can come back — at least until the end, when the professor’s suggestion to sell the estate sends him over the edge of despair and beyond.
Gilbert, who played Mash in recent productions of Stupid Fucking Bird, has quickly become the go-to girl for Chekhov’s unrequited. And she does not disappoint. As Sonya, she gives us perhaps the most beautifully complex character of the production — balancing the strength of the estate’s primary caretaker, the boldness to stand up for her family, and raw nerves of someone first in love. While you come away from this play feeling sorry for all of the characters in this lonely, unchanging world, Sonya is the one you want to hug.
Since no one can speak to Chekhov’s intentions, it’s hard to remark on whether this succeeds in its aim to get close to the language and sentiment of the original Russian play. What we do know is Round House gives us a Vanya that is beautiful and sad, and full of worthy performances.