The Actors Theatre Playhouse closes its 2017 season with a Main Stage production of one of Anton Chekhov’s masterpieces, Uncle Vanya. The play is a comic and dramatic cautionary tale about the courage it takes to overcome the invisible suffering of ordinary people, the futility of service to others, and the fragility of beauty and illusions.
The story revolves around a retired professor who, returning to his estate to live with his young wife, Yelena, mindlessly manages to trip over “sleeping dogs,” unleashing a whirlwind of passion and disillusionment.
The estate once belonged to the professor’s first wife, now deceased, and her brother and her daughter, Sonya, still live there. Add the desolate and dispassionate physician Astrov, along with the household servants, and you have the setting for this classic of the Russian theater.
Chekhov came to playwriting later in life after a remarkable career as a physician who made very little money and served the poor for free, wandering into short story writing purely for financial gain to pay his tuition and ultimately to move his family into a better life.
As his artistic ambition grew, he made formal innovations which influenced the evolution of the modern short story. He made no apologies for the difficulties this posed to readers, insisting that the role of an artist was to ask questions, not to answer them.
In the autumn of 1887, at the age of 27, Chekhov was commissioned by a theater manager named Korsh to write a play, the result being Ivanov, written in a fortnight. Though Chekhov found the experience “sickening” and painted a comic portrait of the chaotic production in a letter to his brother Alexander, the play was a hit and was praised, to Chekhov’s bemusement, as a work of originality.
Although Chekhov didn’t fully realize it at the time, his plays, such as The Seagull, Uncle Vanya, The Three Sisters, and The Cherry Orchard served as a revolutionary backbone to what is common sense to the medium of acting today: an effort to recreate and express the “realism” of how people truly act and speak with each other and to translate it to the stage in order to reveal the human condition as accurately as possible in hopes of making the audience reflect upon what it means to be human, warts and all.
He died at 44 after a long period of suffering with tuberculosis.
According to production director Sam Pilo, “Frank Capra, the great American film director, expressed in his memoir about what makes interesting art: ‘What interests people most is people.’ It is something Chekhov knew and embraced fully.
“Uncle Vanya was originally entitled The Wood Demon because demons live in dark woods and gnaw on human souls, confounding them and making them unhappy. Chekhov worked through many versions of this story of country life to sharpen his understanding of why humans continually make poor decisions, floundering their way through everyday life.
“This is a play long on our list for exploration. Over the years, we have had many ‘table reads’ utilizing a multitude of translations and adaptations. With this latest, the play has been stripped to its bare bones. And just when you think you are engrossed in a drama, you find yourself witness to a farce.
“Chekhov dances on this edge masterfully while his far-reaching themes are utterly contemporary and his concerns over mental health and environmental action remain up-to-the-minute topical.”
Featured in the cast are Bob Gruen, Greg Lesch, Brenda Galenus, Heather Martell, Peter Eisenstadter, Gail Haas, Jerry Levy, and Veda Crewe.
“Playing with Chekhov is one of the best experiences a director can have because every scene comes down to the heart of what the characters need to survive,” Pilo says. “What they want is one thing, but their lack of courage and ability to fully grasp the happiness just in front of them is something else. Chekhov sets his play in an environment where one feels simultaneously safe and comfortable, yet trapped and vulnerable, the place we call ‘home.’
“He is the acknowledged master of creating an atmosphere where tedium, tension, and desolation mix with human comedy. The wood demons are indeed at work! Characters are annoyed, jittery, and afraid of what might happen next. In true Chekhovian style, we are left to wonder if this portrait of hope-starved lives is meant to be farce, tragedy, or both.”
“As an evening of theater, it’s very much like reading a good book. You get drawn in deeper and deeper and deeper.”