BWW Reviews: 'Reality Theatre' in UNCLE VANYA at the Guthrie
In today's world, we've come to expect action, excitement and big emotion, or displays of it, and it's only getting worse in the age of "reality TV." What the public wants, they get. And lots of it. Reality today is oversized, over spent and over wrought.
Anton Chekhov may have been one of the originators of "reality theater," as UNCLE VANYA and his other works display his belief that even though his public in the 1890s wanted the big action and dramatics, he firmly gave them actual reality -- people living real lives, talking endlessly about real things and finding reality to be where they really want to be.
The characters in UNCLE VANYA live in their reality, they talk endlessly about their condition and when their desires for the excitement and action that come with love and change, life smacks them right back down where they belong; and they seem content to go on living with it as it is. While all these characters express passion for love and forcing a change, they get excited about it just long enough to make it all the worse when the reality hits, leaving those watching to feel the dull hum of life rather than the hope that going after dreams will amount to anything more than being reminded that life seldom works out that way.
Vanya (Andrew Weems) and his niece work their small country estate, living frugally and keeping their emotions tightly reined in until visitors turn their world upside down and leave them back where they began but knowing too much in this tragicomic story about unrequited love, thwarted ambition and enduring hope.
Irish Playwright Brian Friel's adaptation seems to be built to help ease modern audiences through this foreign concept of all not ending well. With emphasis on the comic and the characters thrusting themselves into bold actions that give one hope that things may just work out for them all, the play feels lighter and easier to take in. He's giving us that shot of endorphins that will keep hope for a happily ever after ending right until the fourth act, when we're methodically reminded that this, in fact, is still Chekhov and reality is, well, really bleak. But his late-nineteenth-century characters are actually resigned to that, which should be just fine.
The Guthrie's production, which runs now through Oct. 27, 2013, is directed by Joe Dowling and acted by a well-seasoned cast. Weems, as middle-aged Vanya, is affable and you want to root for him to get his heart's desire, even though it is so painfully not going to happen. He is funny and hits his stride when revealing his love for the young Elena and the resulting defeat. Guthrie regular Jim Lichtscheidl is the true comic relief, as you'd expect from him, as "Waffles," a character that Chekhov obviously also threw in to lighten things up periodically. While having no real purpose to the story, his constant reminders of the heat and his inability to deal with it are good for laughs, as well as keeping a sense of place and time for the audience. Reminding us that it's terribly hot and there's little relief for this household from the oppressive summer temps creates more urgency in their situations.
A character that was perhaps a bit self-biographical for Chekhov, who was not only a writer but a man of medicine, was the doctor who came to visit the house and stirred the hearts of the younger women, Mikahil Astrov (John Catron). Astrov was discontent with his career and looked for beauty in life by preserving the natural enviroment -- and we thought we were the first to think of sustainability; this play was written in 1897.
The ladies of the house provide a look at the times they reside in: Elena (Valeri Mudek), a 27-year-old who second wife to Vanya's aged blow-hard brother-in-law, Alexander (Robert Dorfman), is beautiful, spoiled and sensible enough to not expect much more than the place her beauty has given her in life, most of the time, anyway. Sonya (Emily Gunyou Halaas), Vanya's niece and Elena's step-daughter through she's probably older than her father's wife, is sensible, hard working, loyal and patient. She feels confined, however, by the fact that she's not "beautiful," and therefore resigned herself to a life of waiting for time to pass. But the glimmer of hope that the object of her hidden affection may give her an out from that life is too much to pass up and she goes for it, only to a sad end. Maybe. The matron of the household, Melissa Hart's Maria, flits in and out with shouts of activisim and equality.
The actor that stood out as the most agreeable and reasonable on stage, perhaps due to age and experience on part of both the character and the actor, was Barbara Kinglsey as Marina, the old nurse/nanny who has seen it all and tells it like it is. Kingsley's limited stage time was a delight and a highlight.
UNCLE VANYA is a staple of the Guthrie's bread-and-butter plays -- classics that stand the test of time. The production is done in period with the usual beautiful sets and costumes, though this set does not stand out as one of the most opulent or showy, which is perfect for this play -- it does not get in the way or distract. Guthrie regulars, students of theatre history and newbies who want to ease into the classics will find this an enjoyable evening of theatre.
For more information, visit www.guthrietheater.org/plays_events/plays/uncle_vanya.
Photo credits: Andrew Weems (Ivan "Vanya" Voynitsky) and Jim Lichtscheidl (Ilya "Waffles" Telegin) in the Guthrie Theater's production of Uncle Vanya, by Anton Chekhov, adapted by Brian Friel. Directed by Joe Dowling, set design by Michael Hoover, costume design by Christine A. Richardson and lighting design by Frank Butler. September 14- October 27, 2013 on the Wurtele Thrust Stage at the Guthrie Theater, Minneapolis. Photo by Joan Marcus.