posted 2012-04-07 16:11:04

Uncle Vanya

Hunter Theater Department takes on the challenge of Chekhov

David M. Deleon

Contributing Writer

As a playwright, Chekhov is notoriously difficult. His characters are broadly painted, bestowed monologues that seem transparent of emotion, and yet they remain immensely complex. To attempt Chekhov on the modern stage takes considerable work. It’s not enough to portray a naturalistic Vanya or Ástrov since the characters are not quite written that way. These figures are larger-than-life yet still strongly attached to the earth.

Uncle Vanya, directed by Barbara Bosch for the Hunter Theatre Department in late March, concerns a provincial estate owned by a retired professor who inherited the estate from his late first wife. He rarely visits the estate but lives off the proceeds in the city. Doing the actual work of managing the estate is Vanya, his late wife’s brother, and Sónya, his daughter from his first wife. By the time the play begins the professor has returned for an extended visit with his new wife, the glamorously young Yeléna. Yeléna immediately enthralls the bachelor Vanya, as well as his close friend Ástrov, an outspoken doctor who lives in the area.

Generally, the actors in Hunter’s production at the Loewe Theater display a solid understanding of Chekhov’s grand characterizations. Jonathan Harper Schlieman’s battered performance of Vanya is varied, alternating between buffoonery and tragicness. John Camera’s aging professor is appealingly broad and bombastic, as are the other consistently likable minor characters. The standout performance is the least expected one though. Heidi Rider puts much tenderness and strength into Sónya, the naive young girl who falls hopelessly in love with the unromantic Ástrov. For a character as easily susceptible to becoming a stereotype, Rider inhabits Sónya with such grace and humanity, it’s almost a revelation.

Unfortunately, with hits there are also misses. Kevin Maloof’s Ástrov is unremarkable for such an important character. Even when Ástrov is not on stage, he’s being talked about, so it’s a problem that Maloof’s stage presence is far less prominent than Schliemann’s. It puts undue focus on Vanya in the first two acts as comic relief and not enough as a dramatic foil. Maloof’s lines seem to fall out in the same cadence no matter what he’s saying, a bad habit also shared by Jaclyn Mitgang’s Yeléna. Their scenes together tend to drag on, as if they’re from a different, far less interesting production.

Costuming is an aspect that consistently delivers in Bosch’s rendition. Often, period costuming fails to do the past any justice, but the costumes here manage to enhance the characters while also effectively establish the setting. Yeléna’s dresses shimmer regally while Vanya’s suits are provincial and restraining, and Mrs. Voinitsky’s black clothes are severe and magisterial.

The stage features a spare but functional set that doesn’t call attention to itself. However, the structure of the Loewe Theater seats the audience so close to each side of the stage that it gives the show a nervous energy of motion at times. This is most apparent in the first act when Ástrov and Vanya deliver monologues while dancing the hora. The contiguous seating structure counteracts with the setting of the play, which ought to convey a comfortable malaise.

Also missing from the setting is the sense that these characters are trapped within a broad, pastoral landscape. There is a certain claustrophobia presented by the set – an empty square containing various pieces of furniture surrounded by the darkness of the Loewe theater. Missing is a sense that this claustrophobia is due to a lack of opportunity rather than of space. When the characters look off into the distance, we want to feel a sense of vast lands going to waste. This would also add significance to Ástrov’s hysteria about vanishing wilderness.

When the action of the play dwindles to a close and the house guests leave one by one though, we are left with the sad and bitter core of the play: the pair of Vanya and Sónya, working their unrewarding work in the center of the stage. It is a calm tableau, and it carries such patient strength that one is likely to long for more moments as emotionally gripping throughout the play.

One could say Chekhov’s medium is silence, and his words are mere excuses for the spaces in between. This Hunter production certainly has an understanding of that. Outside of some small mishaps, many wonderful moments give a commendable display of the greatest strengths of Chekhov.