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Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley

Uncle Vanya
Pear Theatre
Review by Eddie Reynolds

Stephen Muterspaugh and Jeffrey Bracco
Photo by Ray Renati
In rural Russia, three seasons come and go, forcing nature's changes on a group whose lives otherwise are in a state of perpetual stasis. While emotional outbursts explode on a regular basis within and between this estate's inhabitants and its visitors, not much, if anything, really results that leads to new resolutions or undertakings. For a group of people who each declare at some point deep unhappiness and disappointment with life, there are strong magnetic forces pulling them right back into the routines of their past uneventful lives. A moment's excitement is noticed and then put aside. Words pour out freely; actions follow only reluctantly or awkwardly, if ever. Accepting ownership for one's life path is just too difficult. Putting the blame for one's sad state on others or on fate is so much easier and even attractive.

Pear Theatre presents Dave Sikula's new translation of Anton Chekhov's Uncle Vanya in language that is modern in flow and feel and in a setting that is intimate and immediate. With a highly talented cast and beautifully orchestrated direction, this Uncle Vanya emphasizes the timelessness of Chekhov's story and themes while also providing its own fresh takes on a play written almost 120 years ago and performed worldwide ever since. Rich in character development, fascinating to watch as the characters perform a kind of dance of approach and avoidance, and surprising with its 21st century messages of man's destructive effects on the natural world, this translation and production is anything but just a classic of the past pulled off the shelf for one more dusting; but instead truly still a play with a modernity tone.

Vanya manages the estate of his deceased sister's husband, a professor of the arts, and lives there along with his niece (Sonya), his elderly mother (Maria), an old nurse (Marina), and a poor landowner (Ilya, known as "Waffles") who is now a dependent of the estate. Their predictable life of breakfast at 8:00 and dinner at 1:00 has been totally disrupted ("Everything is out of order," moans Marina) by the arrival of the professor and his new wife, a much younger, extremely attractive blonde named Yelena. Local doctor Astrov arrives to check on the ailing professor, only to be caught up, along with Vanya, in total infatuation with the young and seemingly bored Yelena, who welcomes with smiling eyes the flirtations but offers much verbal protestation, claiming mostly disinterest. In the meantime, a rather plain, pigtailed Sonya falls head over heals for the handsome doctor, who does not notice her at all.

Tensions rise and fall all hours of day and night as work on the estate comes to a halt due to a contagion of unfulfilled love-sickness and to a general atmosphere of ennui with life by all. ("When you don't have a real life, you create life through mirages," Vanya opines.) When the professor suddenly announces that he has decided to sell his dead wife's estate (now technically, by will, his daughter's) for investment purposes, mounting resentments of Vanya toward his brother-in-law come to a head involving a suddenly appearing gun. Much happens quickly with nothing really changing in the end. Life goes on as the estate begins to prepare for the next season's coming.

Stephen Muterspaugh is an exasperated, often ranting Vanya who tends to answer any positive observation with a snide retort. (Yelena's "It's beautiful weather today" is hissed back as "It's beautiful weather to hang oneself.") This Vanya relishes being mad and sad at the same time. He particularly goes ballistic when talking about the professor, whose scholarship he has somehow lost all respect for, leaving Vanya disillusioned since he had worshipped him for so many years. He literally spits and spews as he talks about "this pitiful gout factory" who is "nothing but a soap bubble" waiting to be popped. Vanya is a roller coaster of loud and dramatic emotions, but his peaks are rarely joyous. The best he gets in mood are his awkward, humorously over-wrought wooings of a totally uninterested, but somewhat amused Yelena.

His rival of sorts, on-and-off-again friend Astrov, is played by Jeffrey Bracco, whose looks and demeanor actually mirror very much Stephen Muterspaugh's Vanya. In many ways, they are two peas in a pod in how each plays his part; they are at first difficult to differentiate. The country doctor, too, is not so happy with his life ("Life here tightens around you like a noose ... Is there anything new?") and repeatedly notes, "I don't love people ... I love no one." But he does voice Chekhov's passion for environmental concerns and becomes a veritable firebrand as he preaches passionately about diminishing forests, disappearing species, and dried-up lakes.

With Mr. Sikula's translation in hand, Mr. Bracco's Astrov could easily be a talking head on today's nightly news as he prophesizes the detrimental effects of man on nature to future generations. While Chekhov's characters are stuck and often unable to change even when unhappy, it is clear the playwright and the doctor know there are changes they and all humankind are effecting during their short, pitiful times on earth. When Yelena walks in the room, this Astrov does take off his sour face and becomes much more Casanova in nature—with some style and some sleaze. Yelena notices, but not that much. She too is "very, very unhappy" and languishes, "I am just a supporting character in my life." Monique Hafen brilliantly portrays Yelena's total boredom through elegant, languished slouches of her slender body and with pursed, flaming red lips that combine with rolled, rather blank eyes to signal complete disassociation with the life around her in this house where "everything's gone wrong." Her presence on the flat stage before us always demands attention and notice. Even when conversation and spotlight are in another part of the room, our eyes invariably wander back to Yelena to take in her weary state of the doldrums and to note how much like a vulnerable, caged bird she appears.

Another real star of this production is April Culver as the tomboyish Sonya (always in pants, boots, braids and with a walk more purposeful than graceful). Ms. Culver combines with Ms. Hafen for one of the best scenes in the play as their two young women get together to "share some truths," laugh and cry, and create a female bond stronger than any of males around them could ever attain. There are times when Sonya seems to be the only adult in the room (especially when admonishing her beloved Uncle Vanya for some fault she wants him to correct), and at other times she is clearly at that age of late teens, early twenties where passions can mount to the point of causing every muscle to tense, to stimulate eyes to explode in full wonder, and to cause movements to be over-executed and child-like out of sheer enthusiasm. Her youth can also take a pounding. At one point, when she hears that Astrov certainly has no love interest in her, Sonya stands statuesque and in shock as much goes on around her, totally exuding hurt, shame, loss, and remorse without moving a inch or uttering a sound.

The rest of this cast measure up with aplomb to the standards set by the leads. When Carolyn Ford Compton rubs the shins of her Marina with a silent, pained look while others go about their business, who cannot help but feel the aches of her old body? This is a grandmotherly nurse whose hunched shoulders are just begging to be hugged for all the charm of character, wisdom of age, and love of those depending on her that she so exquisitely shows.

Steve Lambert is properly aristocratic and superior in nature as the retired professor and is full of his own regrets about life and self, perhaps like those shared by anyone who is now sick, dying, and no longer in prime. "The older I get, the more disgusting I get," he snips, but follows that quickly asking, "Don't I get the right in old age for someone to pay attention to me?"

Wes Gabrillo is the pock-faced Waffles, who is much like a loyal puppy in the household, with eager desires to please, to compliment, and to be once in a while noticed and appreciated. Judith Miller is Vanya's sophisticated, proper mother and the focus of both his adoration and his annoyance as she still dotes on her dead daughter's husband, the professor, and his supposed brilliance. Daniel Stahlnecker comes in and out as an estate hand with knowing looks as he surveys the overly dramatic goings-on of the household.

Jeffery Lo, as director, has chosen a two-sided stadium setting for the audience, with the flat stage then taking the full length of the room, only a few feet away from the first rows on either side. His pace and tone is never slow or too heavy and overly serious as sometimes Chekhov is afforded by other directors. The modern language of the script is matched with a set and costumes wonderfully created by Janny Cote and Tanya Finkelstein, respectively, that hint both of yesteryear and this year. The great outdoors and the old indoors of the estate come together through invisible walls and permeable boundaries. We are reminded of the nearby forest, of the times before automobiles, and of the setting of Russia through the outstanding sound design of Jeff Grafton. And the lighting scheme of Sara Sparks brings some kaleidoscopic surprises that emphasize we are slicing into bits of the everyday life of a world that really does not change much for the people in it.

Does the world of local theatre need yet another production of Chekhov's Uncle Vanya? The answer is a resounding yes when a translation and production like that currently at Pear Theatre is so singularly and strikingly offered.

Uncle Vanya continues through March 13, 2016, at Pear Theatre, 1110 La Avenida Street, Mountain View, CA. Tickets are available at or by calling 650-254-1148.

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