Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Diego

Uncle Vanya
The Old Globe
Review by Bill Eadie | Season Schedule

Jay O. Sanders and Yvonne Woods
Photo by Jim Cox
The literary critic Harold Bloom once wrote "The best critical observation on Chekhov that I have encountered is a remark that Gorky made about the man rather than the stories and plays: 'It seems to me that in the presence of Anton Pavlovich, everyone felt an unconscious desire to be simpler, more truthful, more himself.'" "Simpler, more truthful and more themselves" well characterizes Richard Nelson's revival of Chekov's Uncle Vanya, performing through March 11 at San Diego's Old Globe Theatre.

Directing from a new translation with colleagues Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, Mr. Nelson gives his audiences an in-the-round hothouse environment for Chekov's characters to come and go, sip tea, chat with one another and with the audience, and eventually become even more themselves than when the play began.

Retired professor Alexánder Vladímirovich Serebryakóv (Jon DeVries) and his much younger wife Eléna (Celeste Arias) visit the country estate of Sonya (Yvonne Woods). Also in attendance are his daughter by his first wife, Márya (Roberta Maxwell), her grandmother Marína (Kate Kearney-Patch), her former nanny, and Ványa (Jay O. Sanders), Márya's son and Sonya's uncle. A frequent visitor to the household, Dr. Mikhaíl Lvóvich Ástrov (Jesse Pennington) is hanging about even more because of Eléna's presence.

As the estate's residents discuss their guests, it becomes clear that there is both admiration for and resentment of the professor. Now that he has retired, the rest of the family realize that they made many financial and quality of life sacrifices so that he could be devoted to his studies and his writings. Ványa, for one, now sees the professor's oeuvre as being not nearly as prestigious as once believed. When the professor eventually proposes to sell the estate so that he can retire to a life of comfort, Ványa's resentment can no longer be contained.

This production focuses on keeping things simple, emphasizing conversations that help to define the characters' relationships, and avoiding any hint that greater symbolism lies beneath the surface. The set, designed by Jason Ardizzone-West, consists of a series of long communal tables and chairs where the characters can engage either with their thoughts or with each other. Actors rearrange the furniture at the beginning of each of the four acts (two on each side of the intermission) and then begin after a lighting blackout is restored. Jennifer Tipton serves as lighting designer.

Conversations occur with other actors, or with nearby audience members, when characters are expressing their inner thoughts. Mr. Nelson has specifically directed the actors to keep their speech conversational, which means that a complex sound design is needed to ensure that audience members can hear what is being said. Will Pickens has provided such a design, and microphones hang every few feet across the length and breadth of the stage (The Old Globe has also made available an unusually large number of assisted listening devices available for check-out by patrons).

The result is no less than stunning. Despite being dressed in period and locale-ambiguous costumes (designed by Susan Hilferty and Mark Koss), the well-selected cast seems both modern and culturally Russian, without resorting to heavy accents. The universality of feelings that simmer and eventually bubble to the surface is always clear and never contrived. Both theatre lovers and novices will find this revival of Uncle Vanya to be one to cherish.

Uncle Vanya, through March 11, 2018, in the Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre on the Old Globe campus in San Diego's Balboa Park. Performs Sunday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, at 7pm, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, at 8pm, and Saturday and Sunday at 2pm. Tickets are available by calling (619) 23-GLOBE [234-5623] or by visiting

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