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Theater Project Brings Chekhov to Life

Cast of Uncle Vanya
Undertaking Chekhov these days can be a challenge for both theatre companies and audiences, but the professional ensemble of Brunswick, Maine's Theater Project acquits itself admirably in a heartfelt production of Uncle Vanya. Using the eloquent and accessible adaptation by playwright Annie Baker, the performance offers both verbal and emotional immediacy, as well as plumbing the lyric melancholy of the Russian master without forgetting Chekhov's skill at irony and sly wit. This is a production that allows for tears and laughter—one which builds to a quiet paean to human endurance.

Director Christopher Price is able to use the one-hundred-seat black box theatre to create an atmosphere of subtle intensity which draws the audience into the dramatic sphere. He paces the action fluidly—never lethally slow as some productions—and manages to spin a taut thread linking the individual character-driven sequences. Opting for a relaxed naturalism of dialogue delivery and an understated approach to the play's histrionics, he engages the audience in a moving domestic drama.

One of Price's greatest assets in this production is his own stunning set design: some elegant and sparely arranged country furniture set against an open wooden grid backdrop, which looks out on an atmospherically lit forest—one of the play's melancholy metaphors. Lit by J.P. Gagnon with moody mystery, the natural exterior beyond the interior playing space only serves to increase the sense of the characters' isolation and imprisonment.

Wendy Poole opts for contemporary costumes of an indeterminate period that do bespeak the characters' personalities, and James Futter's sound design, employing folk and romantic melodies, both within the play and in the scene changes, adds to the overall ambiance.

In the principal male roles of Astrov and Vanya, Craig Ela and Payne Ratner, respectively, initially appear to be curiously mature casting choices for men Chekhov says to be thirty-seven and forty-seven, but what these actors may lack in youthful fire, they make up for in emotional sincerity and complexity. Ela makes Astrov a world-weary man whose twin passions—forestry and the forbidden Yelena—are already chimera to him. While one might wish for more romantic fervor in the scene with Yelena and more convincing bouts of inebriation, he otherwise conveys the character's claustrophobic world.

Ratner's Vanya grows in stature throughout the drama, from unobtrusive estate overseer to wronged brother-in-law and disappointed suitor. The confrontation scene with the pistols has just the danger and pathos needed, and his catatonic acceptance at the final curtain is deeply touching.

David Butler is an imposing Professor Serebryakov, domineering, demanding, and hopelessly out of touch with his changing world. Maureen Butler gives a warm and knowing performance as Marina, and she manages the old nurse's platitudes with a kind of sweet and foolish sincerity. Kate Kearns is an affecting Sonya—a gawky, plain young woman who barely dares to dream. Her scene with her stepmother when she confides her affection for Astrov is a delicate portrayal of girlish hope and disillusionment, and her "We shall rest" (Chekhov's closing lines) strikes chords of true plaintive desolation.

But perhaps the finest characterization comes from Abigail Killeen, who makes Yelena, the secret heart of the drama, a sublimated siren whose boredom has a quasi-kinetic magnetism. Inscrutable and unattainable, she exudes a fatal charisma that attracts others like moths to a flame, though she, too, must ultimately renounce passion for dull existence.

Rounding out the company are Justin Boss as the maladroit Ilya Telyegin, who plays a lovely guitar; Lee K. Paige as the Professor's mother-in-law Marya; and Sean McGuire as the stalwart hired man.

The Theater Project's choice of Uncle Vanya is to be commended not only because too few classics appear on regional theatre season lineups, but also because of the commitment and sincerity of the effort. Their revival allows a contemporary audience a glimpse of Chekhov's incomparable craft and what made it revolutionary in his time—his understanding of the interior life of his characters and his psychological probing of man's existential dilemma.

Uncle Vanya runs through February 9, 2014, at the Theater Project, 14 School Street, Brunswick, ME . Information at 207-729-8584 or

Photo: The Theater Project

--Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold

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