Regional Reviews: Philadelphia
Also see Cameron's review of The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens & Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord and Rebecca's review of Gypsy
The best elements of director Alexander Burns' production at Quintessence Theatre Group are the ones that make it feel current. Annie Baker's contemporary adaptation is excellent, making Chekhov's dialogue effortlessly accessible to a modern listener. Several cast members make the most of the updated translationand each otherto create authentic contemporary relationships. Julia Frey is phenomenal as self-absorbed Yelena, bringing out her humanity without downplaying the less attractive aspects of her character. Frey's interactions with Jessica Johnson (Sonya, the professor's daughter) and Kevin Bergen (Dr. Astrov, a family friend) create the funniest moments in the production. They are also the darkest and the most revealing. Johnson gives an achingly good performance as the much put upon Sonya, but Bergen's turn as the earnest, intelligent, exhausted country doctor steals the show.
Burns highlights discussions of deforestation, environmental action, and collective responsibility that show Chekhov was remarkably ahead of this time. In these dark days, Dr. Astrov's concerns about humankind's relentlessly short-sighted consumption of resources are painfully pertinent. So, too, are the complex issues of race introduced by the unconventional casting. In this production ,Sonya, her Uncle Vanya (Steven Wright), and her grandmother Maria (Rosalyn Jamal) are all African American. Is institutional racism the reason why Vanya and his side of the family have always been subservient to the Professor? Is the internalization of that racism why Sonya does not think she is beautiful? There is no heavy-handed moralizing or explicit discussion of the issue, just the acknowledgment that we still live in a world where everything we see comes to us through the insidious filter of racial bias.
The Quintessence Uncle Vanya delivers on accessibility and thought-provoking insight, but it is too slow and serious to be an entirely enjoyable theatrical experience. This is especially unfortunate because the blending of ridiculously fantastical and depressingly serious had been a hallmark of Russian literature since Gogol. We do get a glimpse of this mix of serious and funny in the scenes between Frey and Jonson or Bergen, but there should be so much more.
There are a few other issues with the production. Steven Wright plays Uncle Vanya with a hostility that quickly becomes monotonous. It is never completely clear whether this Uncle Vanya takes place in the present day, in the 1890s, or some surrealistic hybrid. Some of Christina Lorraine Bullard's costumes are excellent (the looks for Sonya and Yelena are modern and quite interesting) but others are awkward (the men's pants seem uncomfortably tight) and they ultimately to not clarify when the play is supposed to take place.
Director Alexander Burns is offering up an accessible and interesting production of Uncle Vanya at the Quintessence Theatre Group. Slow pacing and a lack of humor keep this production from achieving its potential, but thanks to a modern adaptation, some great performances, and a few unique ideas, this is still a Vanya worth seeing.
Uncle Vanya, produced by Quintessence Theatre Group, runs through June 18, 2017, at the Sedgwick Theater, 7137 Germantown Ave., in Philadelphia's Mount Airy neighborhood. For tickets call 215-987-4450 or quintessencetheatre.org.