Resistant to change Theater review: For the most part, actors effectively portray the uncertain characters of Arena Stage's production of 'Uncle Vanya.'

December 23, 1997|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Anton Chekhov's "Uncle Vanya" is a play in which things almost happen.

People almost take the steps that could change their lives, or bring them happiness, or at least end the boredom.

But then they retreat, afraid to leave their own preconceived roles, which have given their lives order but not satisfaction.

Director Zelda Fichandler's production at Washington's Arena Stage, using a translation by Carol Rocamora, ably conveys these debilitating frustrations and succeeds in keeping the viewer engaged in a play about futility and ennui.

Although the men in the play are drawn to Yelena, the young second wife of professor Serebryakov, the most interesting relationship on stage is the one between the professor's grown daughter, Sonya, and her uncle, Vanya.

In the text, the character of the family nurse says, "Old people are like children." She is referring to the aging, hypochondriacal professor, but under Fichandler's direction, the comment applies most to Sonya and Vanya. One of the few truly cheerful characters on stage, Angel Desai's Sonya is in love with the country doctor, Astrov -- an infatuation that turns her into a giggling schoolgirl. Yet she is not silly, just romantically immature. Indeed, Desai's warm performance makes her so likable, Sonya's tragedy is the production's most haunting.

Silliness is reserved for Charles Janasz's Vanya, who fawns over Yelena like a lovesick puppy. His childish behavior barely allows him to sit still; at one point he lies on his stomach with his knees bent and feet swinging in the air. Later, angry and mortified at being betrayed by the professor -- who selfishly plans to sell the estate Vanya and Sonya have been maintaining for him -- Janasz's Vanya covers his head with a tablecloth.

The tender bond between Vanya and Sonya has been forged not only by blood, but by their work on the estate. Neither has been infected with the emotional numbness that has overcome Astrov, played by Tom Hewitt as a dashing but chilly figure whose pursuits, in both healing and environmentalism, make it easy to understand why Sonya not only admires but loves him.

The doctor may not know Sonya's heart, but he does know the limitations of his own, and he's bluntly accurate when he says only beauty can move him. As the beautiful and bored Yelena, Melissa King is as striking as a porcelain doll and just as brittle and useless. But the big scene in which she ascertains Astrov's intentions toward Sonya simply doesn't work; King fails to convey the awkwardness Yelena claims to feel.

The production not only marks Fichandler's return to the theater she founded, it reunites her with Tony Award-winning set designer Ming Cho Lee, also an Arena veteran. The most intriguing elements of Lee's stark set are seven pole-like, bare black trees that surround the stage (beautifully lighted by Nancy Schertler).

The trees could represent the deforestation that troubles Astrov, but that would be better represented by the absence of trees. Instead, these sickly sticks are a poignant visual reminder of the wasted potential that runs rampant in this play. Even the branches, which once may have overlapped, are now stunted and, like Chekhov's characters, can no longer reach each other.

'Uncle Vanya'

Where: Arena Stage, 1101 6th St. S.W., Washington

When: 7: 30 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Sundays; 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays; selected matinees 2: 30 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, noon Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Through Jan. 18

Tickets: $24-$45

Call: 202-488-3300

Pub Date: 12/23/97

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