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Theater Review:

"UNCLE VANYA" at Steppenwolf Studio Theatre


It might be an exaggeration, but it’s also a sad fact. Most people would rather drive bamboo shoots under their nails than spend a summer afternoon or evening in a theater watching "creaky" Chekhovian characters lament their meaningless lives while they toss back shots of vodka and mill about their musty country estates. But the wise, tempered and unselfconsciously exuberant production of Anton Chekhov’s "Uncle Vanya" at the Steppenwolf Studio Theatre will forever quash a century’s tragic build-up of dusty – and dirge-like -- interpretations of Russian drama.

Curt Columbus’ artful translation of this absurd yet fortifying story of individuals’ search for love and fulfillment allows for layered nuances to gently unfold. It is as if Chekhov’s complex characters have been coaxed out of their previously mummified carcasses and given a chance to breathe and let the words carry their innermost longings into the stratosphere. Columbus, a Steppenwolf artistic associate who was commissioned by the theater to translate Chehov’s play with attention to American cadences and the actors’ natural speaking rhythms, has achieved a remarkable feat of genius and geniality.

Naturalism and abstraction also sublimely bump against each other at every meticulous and whimsical curve of Sheldon Patinkin’s direction. The relaxed, unpretentious cast unveils a dignity filtered through the alternately frivolous and truthful language. This "Uncle Vanya" is an intrepid and exhilarating old relative well worth visiting.

More comedy than tragedy in the sense that human follies are dissected and put on display despite darker themes of worthlessness and alienation, "Uncle Vanya" takes place in the home an aging Vanya has worked selflessly to maintain. He manages the estate and sends a portion of its profits to his brother-in-law, pompous art critic Serebryakov, whose first wife (Vanya’s sister) is deceased. The old and gout-racked Serebryakov is now married to the young and enchanting Yelena – the catalyst for much frustrated romantic intrigue during the couple’s controversial stay at Vanya’s home.

When Serebryakov flippantly suggests they sell the property, Vanya takes him to task for his lack of honor and respect – then Vanya attempts to shoot the old man and turn the gun on himself. But in Chekhov’s classic style of absurd futility, the title character fails – only to be the most content in the end. Vanya – who spends much of his time pining for Yelena -- gains much solace from his niece, the lanky and good-hearted Sonya (Serebryakov’s daughter with his first wife), as well as the tough-skinned Nanny. But he remains at odds with his self-absorbed mother, Marya, who believes Serbryakov is their intellectual superior; and he tolerates the parasitical presence of the melancholy Telegin.

At the center of the conflict is Astrov, a jaded doctor and an idealistic environmentalist, who longs for a fling with the vapid Yelena while remaining blind to Sonya’s true love and devotion.

"Life itself is boring, stupid and silly!" proclaims Jeff Perry’s softly charismatic Astrov with a southern accent.

But this blissfully unforced production is the polar opposite. It can best be summed up as the perfect blend of non-judgmental respect and unfussy illumination of Chekhov’s text. Everyone involved in this staging helped make it so burningly relevant and uplifting by masterfully getting out of the way. This ranks as the most fluid and unencumbered Chekhovian production I’ve ever seen. Its 150-minute running time breezes by with such lilting, imperceptible swiftness, you almost believe the artists are capable of harnessing time.

The word sublime does not come close to describing the actors’ luminous synergy. Austin Pendleton’s Vanya demonstrates none of the fussy angst wrongly associated with the role. Pendleton exhibits an unaffected dry wit, acknowledges his character’s silly flaws and maintains a sense of integrity and appreciation for beauty despite the idle waste around him. Jeff Perry’s Astrov can be fervent and disenchanted without ever looking like he’s acting.

Sally Murphy as Yelena can express boredom brilliantly in a careless saunter. But Murphy is not restricted to a siren-like portrayal. Her Yelena, despite her pampered life, is ultimately the least satisfied. Monica Payne’s Sonya never succumbs to a self-pitying interpretation. Robert Breuler endows Serebryakov with a demeanor of oblivious puffery that cannot conceal his character’s child-like neediness.

Kirk Anderson’s hapless Telegin paces his every line with the most pointed hilarity. And Rondi Reed’s testy but wise sotto voce mumblings as Nanny give the production its robust energy. In fact, every time Reed enters carrying fruit and bread or her knitting, she turns the stage into a Vermeer painting. Of course, she achieves this stirring illusion with the help of the gifted design team.

Viewers enter the theater as if they are passing through the foyer of Vanya’s estate. Once seated, they surround the stage lined with sepia floral wallpaper and a mural of deforestation (a key theme), which takes on a more devastating urgency when one realizes that the estate’s interior consists of wood products – hardwood floors, mahogany furniture, a cedar bench, etc.

Joseph Wade’s visionary scenic design – including detached (and distressed) window panes that float above the action as if taunting the characters with simultaneous claustrophobia and an escape route – is gorgeously paired with Jaymi Lee Smith’s buttery lighting. Kristine Knanishu’s lush costumes (especially for Yelena), combined with Joe Cerqua’s giddy yet bittersweet sound design and original score, further usher Chekhov’s unjustly dormant words into a scintillating world of the living – and those living their lives at peace with themselves•.

"Uncle Vanya" has been extended through July 29 at Steppenwolf Studio Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted. Tickets: $15-$25. Call 312-335-1650.

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