By JOHN DeMERS
To watch any play by Anton Chekhov, written as they were at the turn of the 20th century, is in some ways to witness the turn of the 21st. Not only was Theater of the Absurd, coming into its own a half-century later after the globe’s nuclear trauma, foreshadowed in these quirky characters’ endless non-connecting conversations, often about nonconnecting. So are, arguably, the tireless self-absorption, non-commenting “comments” and non-replying “replies” of Facebook and Twitter.
Therefore, when we see one Chekhov character barely emerge from a long soliloquy about his or her broken dreams, only to have another step forward and announce to no one, “I am so very happy right now,” we of the 21st century should feel at home.
These are thoughts that come to mind – that are, in fact, unavoidable – watching the Classical Theatre Company’s first-rate production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, directed with spirit and sensitivity by John Houchin. I initially wished Classical had taken on a different Chekhov work: The Seagull perhaps, or my personal favorite, The Cherry Orchard. Yet all such quibbling faded as we were dragged into the lives of characters of diverse ages and birthrights, all stuck together for a vaguely defined period of time in what seems a truly boring Russian country estate. There is, apparently, work that keeps the old place going, yet in true Chekhovian terms we don’t see anybody actually doing anything. In Chekhov’s onstage world, there’s apparently some kind of government stipend just for talking. And then talking some more.
The basic premise of Uncle Vanya was probably used before, and certainly has been used since in theater, movies and television. The owner of this estate – a retired academic who’s written books described as derivative, meaningless and, of course, boring – is thinking of selling the place for cash, thus potentially displacing the unmarried daughter he has from his late first wife and that first wife’s unmarried brother, known around the house as Uncle Vanya. For his part, the old professor has a gorgeous young wife, whose desirability is obvious to all male characters onstage.
Beyond that, what is there? Yet in Chekhov, beyond that, what do you need? As perfectly acted by the ensemble cast led by veteran Philip Lehl, characters careen into and off of each other through scene after scene, emoting, pronouncing and longing – heavy on the longing. There is, as in Shakespeare, utter chaos for most of the play, followed by a certain order and an uneasy peace. The writing is lovely as ever, filled with striking allusions and intensely observed details. As has often been said, Chekhov’s “other job” as a physician armed him well for the clinical nature of his best writing. Clinical, but with a big heart.
Lehl is magnificent as the title character, lamenting all he’s given up now that he’s old (he’s 47!), but not averse to taking a last stab at happiness with the Professor’s young wife, a role in which Tracie Thomason proves his delicious foil. The woman’s morals stand between her and a fling with Vanya, but not so much between her and a fantasy with a young “radical” doctor who ignores other patients to spend more and more time around the house. David Matranga is the perfect Chekhovian here, making huge pronouncements about life, love and forests (a recurring, intriguing metaphor) but then invariably undercutting himself with something like “but maybe not” or “perhaps I’m simply insane.” Chekhov’s characters step willingly into any spotlight that will hold them, but they’re never comfortable there for long.
Eva Laporte delivers a sterling performance as Sonya, the unmarried daughter who for years has loved this doctor from a distance, while Carl Masterson brings ample sputtering and dithering to the role of the senile, gout-ridden Professor with the young wife and the country estate he’s hoping to unload. Yes, hilarity ensues. It really does. Yet thanks to the master’s touch, it’s a kind of hilarity that’s never far from life’s disappointments, resentments and numberless dead ends.
Uncle Vanya, Thursday-Sunday through Jan. 22. TBH Center, 333 S. Jensen. www.classicaltheatre.org.
Photos by Jan Saenz: (top) Philip Lehl and David Matranga, (bottom) Tracie Thomason and Eva Laporte.