Volume II, Issue I Spring 2003

Chekov uses details to illuminate

Uncle Vanya
Written by Anton Chekhov
Adapted and directed by Emily Mann

La Jolla Playhouse
Mandell Weiss Theatre
University of California, San Diego campus
Through June 29

On its surface, Anton Chekhov's "Uncle Vanya" is a sort of precursor to modern theater – the kind of self-contained drama of pettiness that now clogs so much of contemporary drama.

But what Chekhov really does in "Vanya" is to use the often boring details of daily life as Hemingway later would, to bring out larger truths about human existence. Unlike James Joyce, Chekhov doesn't fixate on the details – the details aren't the point of the exercise, but a means to the above-mentioned larger examination.

And so "Uncle Vanya" – in an adaptation by Emily Mann, who also directs – isn't so much about a dysfunctional family living on a working farm as it is about the warping effects isolation can have on the spirit.

Uncle Vanya
Steven Skybell as Uncle Vanya and Amanda Plummer as Sonya.
As to how much "adapting" Mann did, looking over a copy of an English translation of Chekhov's original found on Project Gutenburg, what appears on stage in La Jolla seems pretty darn close – more a matter of a different translation than any big re-write. Regardless, this is no Shakespeare as a Western.

Indeed, it is fully Chekhov as a Russian – with the scenery and costumes (both on loan from McCarter Theatre) creating an Old World feel. The staging, too, creates a sense of another time and place – the mannerisms and deliberate pacing calling on the slower clock of the countryside.

The pacing combines with Chekhov's attention to detail to bring out the oft-overlooked truths to be found in everyday life: That all of us, no matter our station in life, have periods of feeling useless or of having wasted our time here. That people will fall in love whether the situation is appropriate or not. And that all of us have a breaking point.

In addition to his eye (and ear) for detail, Chekhov also created wonderful characters to flesh out those details in "Uncle Vanya" – with not a stereotype to be found. There is the retired professor, a man both worshipped for his intellect and accomplishments and hated for his hold over the family. The local doctor, a man whose passions and intellectual pursuits are withering in the rural isolation. The professor's young wife, Yelena, both intrigued and repelled by the constant sexual advances by the men in her acquaintence. And, of course, Vanya – a middle-aged working man who despairs of ever making anything of himself.

While Chekhov drew these characters sure and well, it takes other people to breathe life into them on stage – and the Playhouse's casting is as deft as Chekhov's pen.

Michael Siberry radiates strength and a warm humor to the role of the doctor, with just a touch of cynicism. William Biff McGuire's portrayal of the retired professor is that of a man who's distanced himself from his family – who buries himself in his studies because they're easier to understand and control. Natacha Roi gives us a Yelena who is torn between duty and desire, loyalty and love. And Jonathan Hogan provides an affable presence as Ilya, the poor neighbor who lives on the estate.

The character of Vanya is key to the play, and Steven Skybell turns in a powerful, raging Vanya – a Vanya who's denied passions and dreams finally boil over. It is something to behold over the course of an evening.

If there's any miscasting, it's Amanda Plummer as Sonya. Which is in no way meant to disparage her strong, insightful acting. Plummer creates a wonderful Sonya – smart and strong and deeply in love with the doctor. But this is a character who is supposed to be plain, even homely – and no makeup nor acting ability can transform the lovely Plummer that far.

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