Anton Chekhov might have written “Uncle Vanya” more than a century ago but the plot is still painfully relevant today, particularly here on the East End, where the divide between wealth and poverty can be seen in sharp relief.
For those unfamiliar with the classic comic drama (or “comma,” as my theater companion dubbed it on Saturday night), the action in this play—now staging at Guild Hall in East Hampton—centers around a visit by an elderly academic (Alexander, played with austere, if frequently kvetching, distinction by Herb Foster), from the city to his country estate accompanied by his much younger second wife (Yelena, played ice cool by Rachel Feldman, who imbues her character with deeper internal life than she is given credit for) and their assorted, for the lack of a better term, lackeys.
Contrary to the title of the play, the downtrodden Vanya (played tragically, comically, and a tad annoyingly by Fred Melamed, who nails the portrayal of this character)—the rich man’s brother-in-law and lifelong caretaker of the estate that the professor inherited after his first wife, Vanya’s sister, died—like all the other characters, is a mere foil for the whims of his wealthy houseguest. It doesn’t help that Vanya has convinced himself that he is in love with his brother-in-law’s comely bride, causing him to become resentful of the professor, of whom he was heretofore worshipful.
Aside from Vanya, the most put-upon character is Sonya (played by Alicia St. Louis, who gives a heartfelt and moving performance), the rich man’s daughter, who, along with Vanya, toils to keep the estate running. But keeping busy is a good thing for the lovelorn young woman. Too much time on her hands allows her thoughts to wander to the doctor (played as a dashing and extremely watchable rogue by Stephen Hamilton, who also directs this production), with whom she is infatuated.
But the doctor—who divides his time between planting trees to save the diminishing forests in Russia, complaining about his lack of fulfillment and trying to drink his way to the bottom of the bottle—is hopelessly in love with the old man’s beautiful, if shallow, wife. He doesn’t even notice the homely but virtuous Sonya.
The cast is filled out by the Ilya (played with welcome comedic effect by Daniel Becker, who holds his own as one of only two non-Equity actors in this production), an impoverished neighbor who seems to exist as a guitar-playing court jester of sorts for everyone else; Maria (played by Delphi Harrington in a nuanced portrayal of a woman of few words but striking cheekbones and comportment); the stable hand Yefim (played by Dominick DeGaetano, the only other non-Equity actor, who makes the most of his brief time on stage); and the family nurse Marina (played by Janet Sarno, who does the heavy lifting in terms of essential, and refreshing, comic relief).
The play, which focuses on lost and squandered chances, as well as the role fate and predestination play in one’s life, is a study in drawing room manners—or better yet, how not to behave unless you are totally alone or want people to think you are a pathetic bore. Vanya himself sums up the emotional temperature of the play quite well early in the first act: “Lovely weather,” he says, pausing, “for hanging yourself.”
Even though the subject matter is bleak, as befits a Chekhov play, the production at Guild Hall was superb.
This reviewer applauds the choices made by Mr. Hamilton in staging this production right on the stage in an intimate setting. It was great to get a real up-close-and-personal look at the action, complete with mark tape on the stage itself and sitting close enough to the actors to practically see their pores.
There is one thing that Mr. Hamilton said in a press release issued before the play was even performed in front of an audience that struck me and I can’t seem to let it go.
“By inviting the audience to join us on stage, our only requirement as artists is to explore these extraordinary characters with as much emotional honesty as we can and not be obsessed with ‘selling’ them beyond the proscenium arch,” he wrote.
God, I love that!
Never again should the subtlety that is “Uncle Vanya” be staged in a cavernous space.
The sets, though minimal, provided the perfect backdrop. The costumes, particularly on the women, were superb. Side note: I know that drab is the point but I do think a glamorous new dress could evoke an attitude change in poor, poor Sonya.
Kudos to the light and sound people too, who hit their marks in such a way as to become almost unnoticeable, except for those of us who watch not only for pleasure but with a critical eye. Well done.