Uncle Vanya


At the Goodman Theatre (Owen)

                                           By Dan Zeff

Chicago–-There are three authorial credits attached to the revival of “Uncle Vanya” at the Goodman Owen Theatre. First is the originating Russian playwright, Anton Chekhov. Then comes Margarita Shalina, listed as working with a literal translation. Then comes Annie Baker, credited as the adapter. It’s Baker’s name on the production that has stimulated so much interest.

Baker is one of the bright lights of American drama in the new millennium. Her plays have populated the schedules of New York City and regional theaters for the last 10 years, capped by her winning the Pulitzer Prize for “The Flick.” Her goal in “Uncle Vanya” is to make Chekhov’s language more accessible to the contemporary ear (the play premiered in Moscow in 1899). Baker has preserved the essentials of the play. She is not a revisionist. But she has a playwriting’s ear and her version is the most vigorous and absorbing I’ve ever seen, with considerable assistance from a brilliant acting ensemble and the insightful directing by Robert Falls.

“Uncle Vanya” is a portrait of as discontented, disappointed, and frustrated a group of characters as you will ever see on a stage. The leading figures are bogged down in unrequited love, boredom, and a sense that they have wasted their lives and things won’t get any better in the future. The word “unhappy” is repeated throughout the play like a mantra. The characters wallow in misery and they are not hesitant to confess their distress with vigor. Rarely has a play projected so much despair and resentment so articulately.

The story takes place in a country house in rural Russia. The Goodman staging advances the time from the turn of the 19th century to what looks like about 1920, judging by the clothing and the appearance of electricity and the off stage sound of automobiles. That design decision lends some immediacy to the action. These characters live in a world the audience can more easily recognize.

Todd Rosenthal’s detailed set establishes a sense of shabby gentility, with the peeling and faded walls and worn carpets. This is a place that has seen better days, a proper setting for characters immersed in unsatisfactory lives. The house sits on an agricultural estate operated by Vanya and his young niece Sonya. Their household is completed by an old nanny named Marina and a couple of servants. The group is expanded by the presence of a pathetic and impoverished neighboring landowner cruelly nicknamed Waffles for his coarse complexion and a local doctor named Astrov.

The engine that drives the plot is the visit of a retired elderly professor of art named Serebryakov, his beautiful and much younger second wife Yelena, along Maria Vasilyevna, the mother of the professor’s first wife, an enigmatic woman and a big supporter of the distasteful professor.

Photo Credit:Liz Lauren

The characters are awash in futile romantic longings. The doctor loves Yelena, and so does Vanya. Sonya loves the doctor and none of these passions is returned. Vanya is burning with resentment because he is convinced he has been slaving away on the estate on behalf of the professor, only to realize Serebryakov is a failure as a scholar as well as spoiled, ungrateful, pompous, and selfish. Vanya, who has visions of the successful man he might have been, sees his life thrown away on a man unworthy of his labors.

The litany of disappointments and grievances occupies most of the play, including several presented in soliloquys, a dated dramatic device that somehow comes across as natural on the Goodman stage. The question facing the audience is, Why should we care about so many woebegone characters. Why don’t these mopes rise up and take control of their lives instead of making hopeless choices and continually kvetching about their bad luck?

The answer lies in Chekhov’s nonjudgmental sympathy for the agonies of his people and the three dimensional performances by the entire cast of the Goodman revival. The characters all come alive as living and breathing people, worth knowing for all their complaining and misfortune. The play is also leavened with humor, including an attempted murder that turns into slapstick comedy. There is even singing and dancing to energize the activity. It’s the energy of the Goodman production that elevates it above the sad sack atmosphere of other revivals I’ve seen. Thanks to the super acting and the guidance by Robert Falls, the characters emerge as flesh and blood individuals in the grip of unsatisfactory lives but displaying forbearance and a steadfastness in the fact of their troubles that is almost heroic. Vanya and Sonya and the doctor and Yelena and Waffles play the hands that life has dealt them and the audience can shudder that there but for the grace of God go I.

First among equals in the ensemble is Tim Hopper, borrowed from the Steppenwolf theater company to portray a Vanya who is outspoken in his sense of his wasted life and his hopeless infatuation for Yenena. Hopper is a robust and youngish Vanya by conventional standards who recognizes it’s too late to salvage anything positive from his life. That’s as tragic as a life can get. Caroline Neff’s Sonya is more muted in her pain but her quiet acceptance of her fate is equally tragic.

Photo Credit:Liz Lauren

As the doctor, Marton Csokas runs all the emotional changes on a life that has failed him at very point. His love for Yelena is hopeless, his fierce environmental fight to save the Russian forests is ignored, and he is sickened by the coarseness and ignorance of the people he must treat daily. Kristen Bush is an unusually animated Yelena, usually portrayed as a wraithlike woman wandering aimlessly through her life of unfulfilling boredom. Larry Neumann, Jr., takes the throw-in minor character of Waffles and gives us a heartbreaking failure who puts a brave face on his humiliating life.

David Darlow plays the professor as a conceited manipulator, but while he is the only hateful character in the story, we sense his awareness that his personal and professional successes may be shams. Marilyn Dodds Frank looks exotic in the cameo role of Maria. The ensemble is ornamented by Mary Ann Thebus as the pious and accepting nanny, a classic example of how a skilled actress can turn a nondescript minor figure into a complementary character of some stature, a pious and accepting woman who places her faith in religion.

Complementing Todd Rosenthal’s atmospheric set are Ana Kuzmanic’s costume designs, Keith Parham’s lighting, and Richard Woodbury’s sound design.

Baker is the behind-the-scenes heroine of the evening. Her version is fluent and allows the actors to give expansive performances that bring alive characters dangerously close to hapless failures. Still, the play takes a little too long to wind down and the final scene could be tightened a few minutes. The previous scenes bring the narrative to a crescendo of emotions and their impact is diluted by the drawn out final moments. That may be why the large crowd at my performance responded to the curtain calls with respectful applause rather than more demonstrative reactions. But overall this is Chekhov at a very high dramatic and theatrical level. If Falls ever fancies a revival of the playwright’s “The Cherry Orchard,” this is the core acting company that would give us a night to remember, and if Annie Baker burnishes the dialogue, so much the better.


     “Uncle Vanya”” runs through March 19 at the Goodman Owen Theatre, 170 North Dearborn Street. Most performances are Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 and 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $20 to $59. Visit or call 312 443 3800.                    

   The show gets a rating of 3½  stars        

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