Uncle Vanya

Written by Anton Chekhov
Translated by Yasen Peyankov and Peter Christensen
Directed by Zeljko Djukic

At the Chopin Theatre in Chicago
Produced by TUTA (The Utopian Theatre Asylum)

A review by M. D. Ball of the performance on July 11, 2009

The long-term consequences of our decisions, the myopia of youthful enthusiasm, and the recognition of inevitability are formidable themes for a single play, though not atypical of Chekhov. And by the end, all these themes have converged into epiphanies about the wasting of life and the failing of idealism. Whether true or false, such epiphanies don't stir undiluted cheerfulness either in the characters or in their observers.

It's easy for players to go too far into the melancholy and drag the story down into gloom and self-pity, either failing to notice or altogether ignoring the comedy, but this production of Uncle Vanya strikes a nearly perfect balance from start to finish, engendering a natural pace and a sense of lightness even across the underlying dismay. So mature was the acting and so skillful were the characterizations that their charm suffused the anguish, and the result was a set of magnetically complex personalities that were endearing yet irritating, and blithe yet brooding.

Director Djukic and his cast understand that a drama rooted in both humor and heartbreak is believable only when it's permitted to unfold on stage -- not when it's coerced. With one or two exceptions, in fact, the acting was so fluid that I forgot I was watching a play. Masterful at creating the illusion of spontaneity, the cast capitalized on moments of silence in the script to go beyond the necessary limits of Chekhov's words in revealing their characters' ennui, hope, and despair. Especially effective at this were Trey Maclin as Vanya and Andy Hager as Astrov, each of whom made every supposedly impromptu action seem wonderfully and utterly real. No better example is to be found than in the accidental wee-hours meeting of Vanya, Astrov, and Telegin, played by Christopher Popio, at which the three men spontaneously broke into three-part harmony, over a guitar strumming out the blues. Making that feel so delightfully impulsive is no small achievement.

Furthermore, Maclin and Hager gave the two most engaging performances of the play. Each man convinced me of his character's self-awareness, in particular, a sense of urgency tempered by an expectation of surrender to what he regards as inevitable disappointment. That amounts more to frustration than it does to desperation, and each man's frequent retreat into gentle humor became a shout through a megaphone. If I had to choose one word to describe Maclin and Hager's performances, "brilliant" wouldn't be altogether malapropos.

Gary Houston fashioned a basically decent Serebryakov whose heart was darkened by the fear of death and by anger over his pain. Houston brought out these motivations and showed us how such a man might react to his curcumstances, i.e., how he might struggle to make rational decisions under the burden of despondency.

In the role of Elena, unfortunately, Jacqueline Stone wasn't exceptional; likewise for Christina Irwin as Sonya. Although each woman had some good moments on stage, they both sounded rehearsed, a weakness that didn't advance the spontaneity I mentioned earlier, but that did highlight, by unavoidable comparison, the freshness of the acting by their colleagues on stage.