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New Jersey by Bob Rendell

It’s Just Our Old Friend Uncle Vanya

Also see Bob's review of Greek Holiday

Uncl VanyaA solid, traditional Uncle Vanya awaits audiences in the new production of the Anton Chekhov masterpiece, directed by Emily Mann at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton. Ms. Mann is also credited as adaptor for this production. However, aside from a few minor alterations including the dropping of the use of two names in addressing various characters and some relatively minor cuts, the text hews closely to a “standard” translation of Vanya which has been in use for more than 20 years.

And solid and traditional is just the way to do it. The more specifically that Chekhov is played to its time and place, the more its universal themes reach out to affect our perception and understanding of our lives. Audiences that fail to see themselves or their foibles in the clear and straightforward work at hand just aren’t trying.

Let’s start with a brief refresher course. Alexander (William Biff McGuire), a retired college professor, can no longer afford to live in the city. So he returns with his very young and beauteous second wife, Yelena (Natacha Roi), to live on the country estate of his late first wife. The presence of the pompous, ailing, selfish and unhappy to be in the country professor and his wife thoroughly upset the life of the estate.

The estate has long been run by Sonya (Amanda Plummer), the adult, spinsterish daughter of the professor by his first wife, in tandem with her beloved Uncle Vanya (Stephen Skybell), the disillusioned brother of the first wife. Prominently present are visiting family friend and doctor Astrov (Michael Siberry), who along with Vanya, is smitten by Yelena; Mariana (Isa Thomas), the wise nanny; “Waffles” (Jonathan Hogan), the nickname for an impoverished landowner who lives on the estate; and Maria (Georgine Hall), the mother of both Vanya and the professor's first wife.

Just a couple of more facts. The less than pretty Sonya is smitten with Dr. Astrov who finds her physically unappealing. And a major share of the proceeds of the estate, earned for many years through the labor of Vanya and Sonia, have helped support the lifestyle of Alexander, long beloved and respected by the family because of their belief in his fraudulent reputation as an academic genius.

In any event, keep your program open to the cast listing page in order to check on who is what to whom and avoid confusion, as sorting out the characters and getting into the play is slow going early on.

However, post intermission this Vanya acquires a strong pulse and provides confrontational fireworks and emotional involvement. From the beginning, despite the early slogging, we empathize with the aging, underachieving, hapless Vanya. Well read and knowledgeable, he shares the dim view of himself that his mother expresses when she tells him that “ideas are meaningless unless they are translated into action.”

Has Ms. Mann brought out the humor of Uncle Vanya in this production? Of course she has. But I would expect as talented a director as she to accomplish this. More importantly, Mann has gotten all of her actors onto the same page. With one exception, the performances have a naturalistic quality and standard American English speech patterns. Unity of style is crucial to an ensemble piece such as this. However, while the cast she has assembled here is a good one, it largely lacks the luminosity that would raise the level of the production to something special. After all, it is extraordinarily difficult to achieve luminosity working on the small scale, ensemble level Chekhov requires.

There are two performances which do reach such a level. Amanda Plummer is a joy. Without having to resort to a false nose, she manages to change her physically lovely self into the very plain Sonya. Her voice and expression convey a tremulous hope for life that gives her Sonya an inner beauty. Her final embrace of an unfulfilling life for herself and her beloved uncle, along with her need to rely on the world to come for any happiness, is heartbreaking.

Also outstanding is William Biff McGuire as Alexander. A blustering lion in winter, he embodies the pompous self regard of so many mediocre academics who hew to the standardized thinking required to obtain the approval of other mediocre and lesser immortals in their own minds. Basking in the glorious light that they cast on one another, they convince the young and impressionable that they are worthy of veneration. How do we know that Vanya’s critique of Alex is accurate? We know because McGuire shows us it is so.

Steven Skybell’s all too human Vanya is especially strong when he confronts Alexander’s proposal to sell the estate. Michael Siberry is an engaging Dr. Astrov, but given his completely dissipated Astrov in the early going, Siberry seems too well restored after intermission. Jonathan Hogan as “Waffles” and Isa Thomas as the Nanny lend solid support.

Natacha Roi is generally solid as the selfish, self centered Yelena, but should tone down her tremulous and suddenly too overwhelming to be credible lust for Astrov.

Georgine Hill as Maria, Vanya’s mother, is disconcertingly off-key. She delivers a fake, fussy, highly mannered performance reminiscent of the style seen in such films as the 1937 Leo McCary sentimental tearjerker Make Way For Tomorrow.

Michael Yeargan’s sets, although somewhat sparse, keep the surrounding forest in view at all times, and acceptably suggest the areas in and around the estate house where the play takes place. Myung Hee Cho’s costumes perfectly reflect the time, place, and status of the characters.

Close to a quarter century ago, I was fortunate enough to see a luminous Vanya. Director Mike Nichols had assembled an extraordinary cast which included Elizabeth Wilson, Julie Christie, Nicol Williamson, George C. Scott and Barnard Hughes (Sofya, Yelena, Vanya, Astrov, and Alexander). For me, it set a high standard against which to compare other Vanyas.

Still, I am grateful that Emily Mann has given us a worthy Uncle Vanya to conclude this season at the McCarter . Along with the superb performances of Amanda Plummer and William Biff McGuire, I commend it to you.

Uncle Vanya by Anton Chekhov, adapted and directed by Emily Mann. McCarter Theatre Center through May 18, 91 University Place Princeton, N.J. Evenings: Wed.–Sun. 8 PM; Matinees: Sat.-Sun. 4 P.M. Box Office: 609-258-ARTS (2787)
www.mccarter.org

Cast:
Mikhail Astrov: Michael Siberry
Marina: Isa Thomas
Ivan Voynitsky (Vanya): Steven Skybell
Alexander Serebryakov: William Biff McGuire
Sonya: Amanda Plummer
Ilya Telegin (Waffles): Jonathan Hogan
Yelena: Natacha Roi
Maria Voynitsky: Georgine Hall
A watchman: Bill Caleo


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Bob Rendell



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