The Shaw Festival Delivers a Worthy Uncle Vanya

Reviewed by Jamie Portman

Photo: David Cooper

Photo: David Cooper

Written by Anton Chekhov

Adapted by Annie Baker

Directed by Jackie Maxwell

NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE, ONT. —  Jackie Maxwell, the Shaw Festival’s retiring artistic director, has always shown a concern for mood and texture in her productions. To be sure, she’s adept at engineering sharply defined dramatic contrasts, but she also understands the subtle power of an extended moment of silence and — unlike more timid directors — is bold enough to utilize it. There’s a musical sensibility at play here: yes, we can embrace the thunder and lightning of the allegro passages, but let’s also heed the more reflective nuances of the adagio movement.

Maxwell is no hurry in the opening moments of her new production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. She wants us to become attuned to the lethargy and languor of this remote Russian estate, a place not so much idyllic as it is psychologically and intellectually stifling. Inertia is unmistakably in the air here, along with the whisperings of a collective sense of loss and failure.

So we must be made conscious of the flickering tensions beneath the surface. Real anguish lurks in the lives we encounter in Uncle Vanya — and it will erupt before the evening ends. The production takes great pains to establish atmosphere and to anchor the play to a particular time and place. At times, however, it is thwarted by Annie Baker’s adaptation. Baker may be the flavour of the month in American theatrical circles, and at its best, her script honours Chekhov’s delicate emotional weavings. But there are also inexplicable lapses into the vernacular of our own day, and the effect is jarring.

Nevertheless, a distinct world does start emerging from the moment the play opens and we see Marina, the family’s old nurse, busying herself at  the samovar. As portrayed with gentle, quiet conviction by Sharry Flett, she’s a beacon of stoicism in a troubled household. We then encounter Astrov, the unhappy district doctor. Patrick McManus, in an understated yet substantial performance, gives us a man whose intellectual rigour and social conscience seem overwhelmed by an agonizing sense of personal mediocrity and failure. That failure, we soon learn, extends to personal relationships and love. “Scenes from rural life.” That’s how Chekhov himself described this tragi-comic classic about ruptured dreams. So because this is a Chekhov play, we expect and get a rueful “if only” quality from this production. Examine the characters and you find that virtually all of them suffer from shattered hopes of one kind or another and that they are more likely to be victims of circumstance than of anything else. The most poignant victim is the middle-aged Vanya who has spent the greater part of his life managing this rural estate for the benefit of his brother-in-law, a posturing, self-absorbed and intellectually bogus academic named Serebryakov.

Vanya registers quickly as a discontented man when he first shows up in that crucial first act. But there’s also an element of the ridiculous. Before the evening ends, Neil Barclay, an actor of formidable emotional range, will have conveyed both the pain and the ludicrousness of one of Chekhov’s most fascinating characters. But early on, in that key first-act conversation with Astrov, we also become aware of his churning complexity. Barclay’s Vanya shows a tart tongue, even a caustic wit, when he reveals his resentment over abandoning his own youthful dreams in order to manage a remote estate to ensure revenue for a brother-in-law determined to enjoy the perks of big-city living. Yet, there is also this floundering vulnerability — a capacity for making a mess of the things that matter to him the most.  So Barclay gives us a Vanya who is a victim of unfulfilled romantic yearnings that he himself can scarcely articulate with any degree of dignity. Consider that farcical moment, albeit one stained with the tears of humiliation, where he shows up at precisely the wrong time bearing a bouquet of flowers for Yelena, the object of his impossible love and the bored new wife of Vanya’s pontificating brother-in-law. She and Serebryakov are visiting the estate — and they are unleashing havoc.

Chekhov’s fusion of seriousness and comedy is also on display in that famous scene where the aging Serebryakov, anxious to continue affording the good life in Moscow, proposes selling off the estate. And what a ludicrous pair of protagonists we have here. On the one hand, we have the professor, portrayed brilliantly by David Schurmann with the kind of preening condescension and self-righteousness that makes him oblivious to the human price his self-serving scenario will exact. On the other hand, Barclay’s Vanya, his sputtering fury teetering on the verge of the absurd   as he contemplates the loss of the only real home he has ever known, along with the end of the one tangible piece of evidence that he has accomplished something worthwhile in life — to wit, his dutiful management of an estate that could soon be gone.

This production is attentive to the dictum that character is fate. The allure of Moya O’Connell’s performance as Yelena rests in the mystery at her core. She has her own restless romantic yearnings — and they’re not directed towards poor old Vanya. But has any she idea of the devastation she’s capable of leaving in her wake? There’s a memorable moment when she plants a kiss on Vanya’s forehead — a  facile and thoughtless gesture that possibly denotes a bit of affection, but certainly not love — and than breezes out the door, unaware of the crumpled specimen of desolation she leaves behind. She is the epitome of mindless destructiveness.

This remote country estate, symbolizing as it does a way of life in decline, does exhibit a sort of tattered defiance — and the sets and costumes of Sue LePage are there to reinforce it. And it can also be seen as a microcosm of something larger happening in Chekhov’s Russia. Meanwhile, its sad and fragile emotions linger in defiance of time. Cast members represent the ultimate triumph of this fine production in inhabiting the world that has been created for them. So the honour roll continues. There’s Donna Belleville, splendid as Vanya’s proud, matriarchal, and stubbornly wrong-headed mother. There’s Peter Millard, quietly brilliant in a wraith-like performance as a failed landowner. And finally, there’s Marla McLean, heartbreaking as Sonya, Vanya’s niece and the professor’s neglected daughter. She’s a creature of child-like goodness, naive about the world, convinced of her own lack of beauty and self-worth — and hopelessly in love with the wrong person. But her moral honesty is palpable. So is her astonishing resilience and her will to endure. And it is those final images that endure once the house lights go up in the Court House Theatre.

(Uncle Vanya continues at the Shaw Festival’s Court House Theatre to Sept. 11. Ticket information at 1 800 511 7429 or shawfest.com)

Uncle Vanya

By Anton Chekhov

Working with a literal translation by MARGARITA SHALINA and the original Russian text

Directed by JACKIE MAXWELL

Designed by SUE LEPAGE

Lighting designed by REBECCA PICHERACK

Original music by PAUL SPORTELLI

Beatrice Campbell: Stage Manager

Amy Jewell: Assistant Stage Manager

Crew

Neil Barclay: Ivan Petrovich (Vanya)

Donna Belleville: Maria Vasilyevna

Kate Besworth: Servant

James Daly: Yefim

Sharry Flett: Marina

Marla McLean: Sophia Alexandrovna (Sonya)

Patrick McManus: Astrov

Peter Millard: Telegin

Moya O’Connell: Yelena Andreyevna

David Schurmann: Serebryakov


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