Chicago Theatre Review
No Joy in Life, But Wait…
Uncle Vanya – Goodman Theatre
Everyone in Anton Chekhov’s classic dramatic comedy is completely dissatisfied with how his life has turned out. Some had big dreams, others simpler, more modest goals or wishes; but no one is happy. There’s no joy in life for any of these people but, in the end, they decide to simply move away or carry on as they always have, and to wait…things might change. Probably not, but there’s always that possibility. Unrequited love is a way of life for these folks. Everyone’s pining over each other, but no one ever really connects, like a Russian version of a TV daytime drama. Frustration, bordom and hopelessness over dead-end careers fill most of Chekhov’s characters with overwhelming inner turmoil.
The country family estate becomes one more character in this production. It’s actually the heart of Chekhov’s play. Designed here with breathtaking scope and beauty, Todd Rosenthal’s sprawling stage setting is alive with specific details that say so much about this family, even before the play begins. The decaying mansion represents the past, constantly reminding Vanya of his younger years and better times. Several of the characters call it home and for them it’s everything. Yet the individuals who control its future don’t seem to regard the house as anything but a dinosaur, an old country cottage that’s outlived its value and usage. The estate also becomes a microcosm of society, in which members from various social classes dwell, duking it out for survival.
This new, contemporary-sounding adaptation, written by Pulitzer Prize-winner Annie Baker (“The Flick”), makes Chekhov’s 19th century comedy feels breezy, fresh and brand new. The play is still lengthy (over 2 and a half hours, with one intermission) and filled with all the ennui of existence that dominates the original script. Characters continually stroll through the sitting/dining room, nap or lounge about, guzzle vodka and complain of boredom and their discontent with life. However, it’s director Robert Falls’ astute guidance that draws so many fine performances out his 10-member cast. He makes every character a real, three-dimensional human being. Each of Chekhov’s creations lives, breathes and feels like a person every one of us knows or has, at least, met. That authenticity inspires this entire production and makes it sing.
In the title role, talented Tim Hopper, one of Steppenwolf’s leading ensemble actors, is perfection. Vanya’s restlessness, his anxiety, a belief in bad omens coupled with an unrequited love for Yelena, the second wife of Professor Serebryakov (played with innocuous pomposity by the wonderful David Darlow) are all consuming. Hopper embodies these qualities at times with a nebbish, Woody Allen-like bumbling quality that makes the man quite endearing.
The always magnificent Caroline Neff, another favorite at Steppenwolf (and who, coincidentally, appeared there in “The Flick”), is impeccable as Sonya, Vanya’s beloved, hard-working niece and the Professor’s daughter from his first marriage. Ms. Neff creates a strong-willed, self-reliant young lady. In everything she undertakes she’s in command with one exception. For years, Sonya’s been carrying a torch for the handsome, ecology conscious country doctor, Astrov. Her dream of love consumes Sonya’s every moment, but Vanya’s friend Astrov, played with gusto and a certain rustic sophistication by New York actor Marton Csokas, harbors his own dreams of love. Like Vanya, Astrov yearns for the beautiful, young Yelena.
As portrayed by Kristen Bush, Yelena, the stylish second wife of aging scholar Serebryakov, longs for adventure and some kind of affection from a younger man. She gently rebuffs Vanya’s advances but she guiltily succumbs to Astrov, only to abandon him at the last minute. Ironically Sonya, Yelena’s stepdaughter, has finally made peace with their relationship and confided her unrequited love for the good doctor. Yelena promises to talk to Astrov to determine if he shares Sonya’s feelings of attraction, but she discovers that she’s also attracted to this man.
Other standouts in this production include the delightfully tenacious character actress, Mary Ann Thebus, as Marina. This feisty, elderly nurse and housekeeper, beloved by Vanya, Sonya, Astrov, is played with spunk and sagacity. In this humorous, yet touching portrayal we’re treated to another fine performance by one of Chicago’s most accomplished actors. Marilyn Dodds Frank, so brilliant in Goodman’s recent production of “The Matchmaker,” once again creates an hilarious character. She plays Maria, Vanya’s slightly distant and constantly admonishing mother. Living in her own fantasy world, Ms. Frank’s matriarch reigns like a self-coronated queen of the estate. Lounging about reading and being waited upon hand and foot, Maria spends her days chastising her son for his negative remarks concerning her much-admired son-in-law, the Professor.
Life sucks sometimes. Everyone finds disappointment in his existence, at some point. But Chekhov’s characters seem to acknowledge little else in this classic play that finds humor in ennui. In Annie Baker’s dryly comedic adaptation, directed with naturalism and honesty by Robert Falls, we have what’s essentially a contemporary story, that just happens to be set in Russia in the late 19th century. Costumed with brilliance by Anna Kuzmanic, this is a cleverly captivating production and surprisingly cheery, despite all the dissatisfaction expressed by its characters. Therein lies the humor. Continual bitchiness is often funny. Sonya remarks near the end of the play that there’s no joy in life…but wait…just wait. Theatergoers will find the joy.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented February 11-March 19 by the Goodman Theatre in the Owen Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn, Chicago.
Tickets are available in person at the Goodman box office, by calling 312-443-3800 or by going to www.GoodmanTheatre.org/UncleVanya.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.