BWW Review: UNCLE VANYA at The Gamm is Close to Perfection

BWW Review: UNCLE VANYA at The Gamm is Close to Perfection

Occasionally the name Anton Chekhov invokes the same kind of anxiety one may get from Shakespeare or other "heavy" literary writers who we feel like we should go see to appear educated/ arty, but who no one really enjoys. Unfortunately, that makes people forget one of the reasons Chekhov and Shakespeare are great--they know how to balance humor and drama in that way that feels very human and well-rounded. It activates all the parts of the viewer's brain, and leaves one feeling thoroughly entertained and thought-provoked at the end. The Gamm's production of UNCLE VANYA, translated and directed by Curt Columbus' manages to communicate volumes, while keeping everything accessible and relatable. The moments of humor are genuine and serve to heighten the tension in other scenes. Gamm regulars will have seen these actors in a dozen other roles over the years, yet they all managed to adopt their new personas in a way that feels so genuine it's like this world has always existed, and the audience managed to wander in at exactly the right time.

Vanya, Tony Estrella, manages a country estate owned by Professor Serebryakov, Richard Donnelly, along with the professor's daughter Sonya, Rachel Dulude, from his first marriage, and his mother and small staff. They have a relatively peaceful existence, but Vanya is keenly aware of his advancing age, and Sonya has fallen in love with the country doctor, Astrov, Steve Kidd, who is not aware of her affections. When the professor and his wife Yelena, Marianna Bassham, come to stay for an extended visit, they manage to upend the somewhat tedious status quo, though not in a way that does Vanya or Sonya any favors.

Though the translation, direction and pacing are excellent, the success of this production rests squarely on the shoulders of a cast who not only portray their individual characters perfectly, but who harmonize (literally at times) just as well and allow each other to shine. Rachel Dulude is heartbreaking and stoic as Sonya, the plain daughter who pines for Astrov, knowing that he'll keep visiting the house and she'll still get to see him, as long as he doesn't know how she feels. Her relationship seems to sum up one of the main themes of Uncle Vanya--is a persistent wondering and hoping better than giving in to reality? Is Sonya better off with the doctor not knowing how she feels as long as he comes to the house often and that makes her happy in the moment? Is Vanya better off never having tried to reach his full potential because he has a reasonably comfortable life and wasn't inclined for greatness?

Tony Estrella is a compelling and relatable Uncle Vanya in Act I in particular as he bemoans his lost youth and loudly proclaims his age of 47 to anyone who will listen to him. His frustration at aging and wasted potential is palpable, and Estrella frequently removes his glasses as if they're foreign objects that found their way on to his face, and then hastily replaces them once he realizes he can't see. It's subtle, but fully illustrates the way a person's body starts to betray one as one gets older. Little touches like that really round out the performances and add depth to the humorous moments. Act II is more dramatic, and Estrella goes a little over the top at moments, but never enough to be distracting.

Yelena, played by Marianna Bassham, is the much-younger wife of the professor, and the woman upon whom everyone in the house seems to pin their hopes and dreams. Vanya has been in love with her for years, Astrov quickly becomes smitten, and Sonya looks to her as a role model and confidant. Bassham's Yelena embodies this otherworldly glamour that seems effortless and is therefore that much more appealing, but once her languorous facade starts to crumble a bit she immediately becomes someone you want to save. It's impossible to not be as taken with her as all the other characters are. Her performance overall is stunning, and there are frequent moments where she effortlessly steals scenes from her fellow actors. Her facial expressions alone are a masterclass in internal dialogue, and the scene where she and Astrov look at slides of old maps is one of the funniest I've seen in a long time, even though she barely says anything.

The rest of the cast are equally good. Richard Donnelly is thoroughly pompous as the professor, but manages to not becomes a caricature. David Rabinow and Gunnar Manchester lead excellent musical interludes that unexpectedly serve the story incredibly well. Casey Seymour Kim as Marina the housekeeper has a small part, but manages to feel essential to the narrative and has some of the funniest moments of the night. Steve Kidd is affable as Astrov and he and Dulude have a very interesting and effective tension in the scenes where she's clearly longing for him, and he's completely clueless; then that tension pivots when Astrov falls for Yelena.

This production of UNCLE VANYA is an excellent play executed incredibly well. While it sticks pretty close to the traditional story, it also takes a few chances that wind up being delightful, and it's always a thrill to see exceptional actors performing well-written, classic plays.

Uncle Vanya January 18-February 18 Sandra Feinstein-Gamm Theatre, 172 Exchange St., Pawtucket, RI Tickets: $44, $52, $60 depending on day/time gammtheatre.org or 401-723-4266

Photo L to R: Tony Estrella as Uncle Vanya, Marianna Bassham as Yelena.

Photo by Peter Goldberg.


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